Newt Gingrich, who loves a good historical allusion, is struggling with his better angels.
Over the last week, the GOP presidential candidate has vowed to wage a "relentlessly positive campaign," and has sworn to disavow any outside groups that go negative on his behalf.
But this week, Iowa Republicans are finding a nasty brochure from a pro-Gingrich super PAC in their mailboxes. It describes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Gingrich rival, as "the second most dangerous man in America" (after President Obama).
"Don't let Romney backers mislead you!" says the flier, published by Strong America Now.
After a town-hall meeting at the Southbridge Mall here on the second day of a three-day bus tour across the state, reporters asked Gingrich how he reconciled his promise to take the high road with the anti-Romney brochure.
"I would discourage them not to do that anymore," the former House speaker said. "I think that's not right. Again, I don't control them."
Just days earlier, when Romney said he had no control over super PACS that support him, Gingrich reacted harshly, calling Romney's defense "palpably misleading, clearly false and ... politics in its worst form." He added, "These are his people running his ads, doing his dirty work while he pretends to be above it."
With the first voting of the 2012 presidential campaign less than a week away, the three candidates bunched at the top of the polls in Iowa, Gingrich, Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have been struggling to win over Hawkeye State Republicans, who have failed to coalesce around a candidate. The airwaves are clogged with negative ads, with most training fire on Gingrich, who had briefly surged to the front of the pack and has since slipped in the polls.
On Tuesday, Gingrich, dropping any pretense of civility, went after Paul during an interview on CNN.
"I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American," Gingrich said.
Asked Wednesday whether it's a double standard to attack Paul while proclaiming that he's refraining from negative campaigning, Gingrich said, "You can fight in a positive way. It's good for America to see someone fight in a positive way and not degenerate into the kind of junk you've seen on TV recently."
Gingrich also said he would like to be on the ballot in his home state, Virginia, but is not prepared to file a lawsuit as Texas Gov. Rick Perry has done after he, like Gingrich, failed to produce enough petition signatures to qualify. (Romney rapped Gingrich on Tuesday for a failure of organization.)
"I would like to be on the ballot or I'd like for the Legislature to give me the ability to have a write-in campaign," Gingrich said. "Every poll in Virginia shows me beating Romney, so I would love to be able to at least have a write-in campaign. I haven't talked to our attorneys."
While voters at the town hall asked Gingrich about his positions on education, child labor, how he would keep God in civic life and his position on North Korea, reporters pressed him to elaborate on a story to be published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine in which he asserted that he and his wife, Callista, went on a Greek cruise last summer to provoke a confrontation with his staff, who resigned en masse.
"We'd been campaigning very hard," he said. "And we'd planned for a long time to stop for 10 days to think. Again, I know this doesn't fit the normal media model of how candidates operate. I think you need to pace yourself."
Sandra Pippert, a retired special-education teacher who farms grain here in northern Iowa, is typical of the voters Gingrich has been wooing this week.
She said she likes Gingrich, Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, but that she isn't ready for a female president. She said she thinks Romney is a good family man, but was offended by the offhand $10,000 bet he tried to make with Perry during a recent debate.
"That's a year's salary for some folks," she said. "Around here, $100 is a big bet."
Pippert came to the town-hall meeting to see if Gingrich could seal the deal.
She said she came away thinking she will likely vote for him on Jan. 3.
"I've always liked Newt. I don't know why," she said. "He's a very intelligent guy. They can't push him around, and I don't think other countries would be able to push him around either. His life is back together, and he really appreciates the things he overlooked before."
Noting Gingrich's wife, who attended Luther College an hour away in Decorah, at his side, Pippert said, "If he doesn't know something, he can ask his Iowa-bred wife, who does understand the common people."