Newt Gingrich, expressing confidence he will be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said he is unsettled by his campaign’s rapid rise in recent weeks and doesn’t intend to answer criticism from rivals.
“I have to confess, this is disorienting,” he told reporters after a dinner speech to party activists yesterday in Johnston, Iowa. “This is such a rapid change that we are having to rethink our own internal operations right now.”
Seeking to emerge as the main challenger to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Republican race, Gingrich argued that he would offer the clearest conservative alternative to President Barack Obama. He drew an implicit contrast with Romney, whom he didn’t mention by name in any of three Iowa speeches.
“I’m not interested in distinguishing myself from Romney,” he told reporters. “I’m happy to be who I am. I think that distinguishes me from Romney.”
As he campaigned ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, which start the Republican nomination contests, Gingrich said he intends to stay focused on Obama rather than his primary challengers. In one of his speeches, he said a general election between him and Obama would offer voters the “widest choice in American history.”
He made his case as the campaign pace in Iowa quickened with new television ads yesterday from two other candidates.
Romney, who has visited the state infrequently, started his television advertising in Iowa with a spot promoting his credentials as a “conservative businessman.” Romney is the former head of the private equity firm Bain Capital LLC.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, seeking to revive a struggling candidacy, was to air an ad aimed at the state’s social conservatives in which he discusses his Christian faith.
“Some liberals say that faith is a sign of weakness. Well, they’re wrong,” Perry says in the spot. “I’m Rick Perry and I’m not ashamed to talk about my faith.”
Gingrich, 68, expressed confidence about his chances of winning the nomination in an ABC News interview yesterday.
“I’m going to be the nominee,” he said. “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Romney, 64, said today that “self-aggrandizing statements about polls are not going to win elections.”
Appearing on Fox News, he noted that in the Republican race “there’ve been a lot of people who’ve been real high in the polls that are not high in the polls anymore.”
Romney also pressed his case against Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker who has earned millions of dollars since leaving Congress, as a Washington insider.
“This is not a matter that America needs better lobbyists or better deal-makers, better insiders. I think America needs a leader,” Romney said, offering himself as that candidate.
Gingrich lacks the campaign infrastructure that traditionally has been required to win the caucuses. His three appearances yesterday were all at gatherings with built-in audiences that didn’t require much organizing in advance.
His campaign this week opened its first office in Iowa -- the last major candidate to do so -- and may add staff members in the coming days. In mid-November, Gingrich added two advisers in Iowa, individuals who had left his campaign in June when more than a dozen staff members, including his national co-chairman and campaign manager, resigned following discord over strategy.
“I was, supposedly, in June and July, dead,” Gingrich said in his dinner speech. “So, it’s great to be back. And I have to confess that while I was hoping wave, we’ve had sort of a tsunami.”
Gingrich started his campaigning yesterday with a speech to a standing-room-only audience of about 400 employees at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in Des Moines, Gingrich said he would bring dramatic change to Washington.
“We need a serious, in-depth conversation about the mess we’re in, which is far beyond President Obama,” Gingrich said. “This mess has been growing for 30 years. He is only a symptom of it.”
Gingrich also reiterated his suggestion that low-income children get paid to clean and perform other tasks at schools -- a proposal critics say would violate child labor laws -- as a way to break a cycle of poverty.
“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” he said. “They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of, ‘I do this, and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”
Gingrich will need a strong showing in Iowa to establish himself as Romney’s prime challenger. The two are the leaders in recent national polls of Republican voters.
“I think he has some momentum here,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa who plans to remain neutral in the race. “Whether they have enough time for a turnout effort, I don’t know.”
Scheffler, who also leads the socially conservative Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said it remains “anyone’s guess who will win the caucuses.” He said he has seen no evidence that social conservatives are coalescing around one alternative to Romney.
After his speech at the insurance company, Gingrich signed a pledge promoted by a group called Americans for Securing the Border calling for construction of a double fence along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2013.
Gingrich’s Iowa visit is his first since a Nov. 22 debate in which he said he supports allowing some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. years ago and have raised families and pay taxes to legally remain in the country, a stance that could prove unpopular among some Iowa Republicans.
Romney and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, another presidential contender, accused Gingrich of favoring a form of amnesty that they have suggested would create a magnet for more illegal immigrants. Romney has also started to paint Gingrich as a Washington insider.
Scheffler said he doesn’t think the immigration issue will hurt Gingrich that much.
“A lot of us don’t totally agree with Newt’s stand, but when he explains it from beginning to end, I think a lot of people can say that they could live with it,” he said.