DAVENPORT, Iowa -- More than $1 million in negative advertising -- much of it bankrolled by Mitt Romney's allies -- has eroded Newt Gingrich's standing in Iowa and thrown the Republican presidential race here wide open two weeks before the first votes.
The former House speaker's Iowa slide mirrors his newfound troubles nationally, and it has boosted Romney's confidence while fueling talk that libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul could pull off a win in the leadoff caucus state on Jan. 3.
"It's very disappointing to see so many of my friends who are running put out such negative junk," Gingrich said Monday as he arrived in Davenport, poking at his opponents even as he insisted he was running an upbeat campaign. "I really wish they would have the courage to be positive."
Despite his chiding, attacks against him are all but certain to continue. For one, the Restore Our Future political action committee, made up of former Romney staffers from his failed 2008 bid, plans to spend $1.4 million more over the next two weeks, including on a new ad beginning Tuesday that's expected to be aimed at Gingrich. That would bring to roughly $3 million the amount spent by the group against Gingrich.
Aides for several campaigns competing against Gingrich as well as outside independent groups aligned with the candidates say their internal polls find that he has fallen over the last week from the top slot in Iowa. And a national Gallup poll released Monday found Gingrich's support plummeting: He had the backing of 26 percent of Republican voters nationally, down from 37 percent on Dec. 8. Romney's support was largely unchanged at 24 percent.
Gingrich's weakened position follows a barrage of advertising that cast him as a longtime Washington, D.C., power-broker. The ads, primarily financed by so-called super PACs, underscore the power of independent groups following a Supreme Court decision last year that allowed people, unions and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to outfits advocating the election or defeat of candidates. Since the ruling, groups have popped up to work on behalf of every serious Republican presidential candidate.
Gingrich said while campaigning in Iowa that any candidate faced with such a concentrated an attack will slip.
"You get enough negative ads without answering them, your numbers go down for a while," said Gingrich, who has tried to refrain from attacking his fellow Republicans. "I think the average Republican's going to be very unhappy with Republicans whose entire campaign is negative."
With the caucuses looming in two weeks, the race in Iowa arguably is anyone's to win. And the results here will shape the rest of the state-by-state march to the GOP nomination.
Gingrich has acknowledged that the onslaught has tested his pledge to keep his criticism focused on Democratic President Barack Obama.
The Republican rushed back to Iowa on Monday after a three-day absence for three days of campaigning before voters tune out this weekend for the Christmas holiday.
He told about 200 people in Davenport that he would launch a 44-stop Jobs and Prosperity tour before the caucuses, and use those events to answer any charges put out there. Gingrich also acknowledged his Iowa organization lags behind. "There's no question, some candidates have been running for five or six years and have raised millions of dollars and they're better organized than I am."