AMES, IOWA -- Newt Gingrich -- seeing his poll numbers plunge with devastating negative ad attacks -- started to hit back Sunday, taking aim at chief GOP rival Mitt Romney for voting for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary.
Gingrich, the former House Speaker, had been running a positive campaign, calling it an "experiment" on Sunday while on the stump here.
The "experiment" has not worked.
No matter how much people say they want upbeat campaigns, Gingrich's quick fall shows negative ads work. That's why they exist.
Iowa holds the first-in-the nation vote Tuesday, and Gingrich -- who a few weeks ago was a front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination -- didn't even make the top three in the Des Moines Register final poll released Saturday night. The contest here -- according to the survey -- is winding up between Romney, Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Most of the anti-Gingrich ads have been bankrolled by pro-Romney "SuperPacs." One of them, "Restore Our Future," has already spent more than $4 million to help Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
While the Register poll shows Gingrich is the "most knowledgeable" of the seven major contenders, he was the most "ego-driven" and the one with the poorest score when it comes to "relating to ordinary Iowans."
"The negative ads have had a huge destructive impact on him" in Iowa, said Frank Luntz, a specialist in the use and impact of political language. "But they have not destroyed him nationwide.
"He has a simple challenge. Figure out the antidote before he gets to South Carolina. If he does, he is a big time contender. If he doesn't, he's done."
I talked with Luntz at a sports bar here -- near the Iowa State University campus -- where Gingrich stopped for a "meet and greet" on Sunday. Gingrich was with his wife, Callista, and his oldest daughter, Kathy Lubbers, a Miami business consultant.
"Even if people want to see a positive campaign, you are still influenced by the negatives," Lubbers told me. Referring to the Register poll, she added, "the good news is 41 percent of Iowans are saying they haven't made up their mind, they are still fluid."
If Gingrich is trounced in Iowa, his comeback play would seem to be with the large number of socially conservative voters in South Carolina, with a Jan. 21 primary.
New Hampshire's primary is Jan. 10 and Romney has held a commanding lead there in every poll.
R.C. Hammond, Gingrich's communications chief, told me that Gingrich now is going to jet to New Hampshire from Iowa -- and not just jump ahead to seemingly more fertile ground in South Carolina.
Look for a new phase of the "experiment," Hammond said. "Look for us to go out and point out the obvious."
The Gingrich team on Sunday started to hit Romney for voting for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary when the former U.S. Senator for Massachusetts was in a primary with Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown.
That plays into the most central rap against Romney -- that he is not a real conservative, that he converted for the campaign and in essence he is a "Massachusetts moderate." In the context of the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, that is not a compliment.
The Tsongas vote has been raised before -- when Romney ran the first time for president in the 2008 GOP primary.
In 2007, Romney explained his Tsongas support in an ABC News interview, noting that President George H.W. Bush faced no real opposition for re-nomination.
"In Massachusetts, if you register as an independent, you can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. ...When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I'd vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for the Republican," Romney said.
I take it that the Gingrich team will use New Hampshire as an "experiment" to see if they can drive down Romney's numbers. What the Gingrich forces don't have are "SuperPacs" poised to help him right away in New Hampshire.
Said Gingrich in Ames, "a narrow win for him (in New Hampshire) will be the equivalent of a defeat."