The Road Less Traveled: Newt’s Positive Play (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

DES MOINES - The rap against Newt Gingrich is that he's undisciplined, erratic, even, in the words of rival Mitt Romney, "zany." But, when it comes to campaign strategy, the former House Speaker is sticking to the script: A mostly positive one.

Even as he's getting out-gunned and pummeled by air attacks from Ron Paul and big-money Super PACs supporting Romney, he's singing a pretty positive tune.

Take a look at a new campaign ad Gingrich released today in Iowa on the morning of the final presidential debate here before the Jan. 3 caucuses. The title is "We Deserve Solutions," and the script is simple.

"These are challenging and important times for America. We want and deserve solutions. Others seem to be more focused on attacks rather than moving the country forward. That's up to them," Gingrich says in the ad, speaking directly into the camera. "I believe bold ideas and new solutions will unleash America's creative spirit. When I was Speaker, our budget was balanced and 11 million jobs were created. We can do it again and rebuild the America we love."

Conventional campaign strategy says you never let an attack go unanswered, and in some cases Gingrich has fought back. But, Newt is convinced that his "high road" approach is going to appeal to an electorate maxed out on negativity.

During the course of the week, the Romney campaign has taken a different tack.

This morning Team Romney is out with a new web video hitting Gingrich for lavishing praise on Romney's record of job creation back in 2010. "Governor Romney in his business career created more jobs than the entire Obama Cabinet combined, so he could actually talk about it," Gingrich said a conference in Washington, DC that year. The clip of his speech plays twice in the spot.

The campaign is also continuing to level attacks over Gingrich's comments on Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare overhaul plan:

"When Republicans took one of the most courageous votes I've seen in at least a decade to call for the reform of Medicare under the Paul Ryan plan, he goes public and says this is a 'right-wing social engineering' plan. Recently he even called it 'suicide,'" Romney said in a statement this morning. "I know it can be popular with some people to use extreme language, but we're talking about the presidency of the United States."

And while Gingrich sees his poll numbers on the rise, according to some surveys. His opponents see things a bit differently, saying they are detecting a real softening in Gingrich's numbers in Iowa.

As ABC's John Berman highlighted in his report on "Good Morning America" today, Romney sources are convinced that Gingrich is already starting to slide. The $3.1 million dollars in negative ads from Romney supporters is making a difference - especially the notion Romney is pushing that Gingrich doesn't have the temperament to lead.


DEBATE DAY IN IOWA. The Republican presidential candidates take the stage for their second face-to-face showdown in a week's time. Coming on the heels of last weekend's ABC News debate, the most-watched of the primary season, tonight's debate will be the last time all of the GOP hopefuls will meet on the same stage before the Jan. 3 caucuses. The debate is sponsored by Fox News and the Iowa Republican Party. Watch it on Fox News and starting at 9 p.m. ET. "This is a clean-up debate," Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University told Fox. "It's sort of the county fair right before the state fair … where they want to see whether that pony is lame or not."

@ BretBaier : #iowadebate RT  @adamsavader  @BretBaier What is the official hashtag for tonight's debate?  #GOP  #tcot  #TeaParty

ABC's Matthew Jaffe previews what's at stake on tonight's debate stage:


GINGRICH'S EVANGELICAL CHALLENGE IN IOWA. As Newt Gingrich stood before a crowd of hundreds of social conservatives in Des Moines less than three weeks before Iowans gather for the state's first-in-the nation caucuses, the challenge he faces came into stark relief. Gingrich told the crowd on Wednesday night that he and like-minded Republicans were "engaged in a cultural struggle with a secular elite that believes that life is random and has no moral meaning." But outside a historic auditorium in downtown Des Moines where Gingrich promised to support Congressional action to pass a bill that "defines personhood," critics of the former House Speaker placed pamphlets on car windshield that attacked Gingrich as a "a pro-life fraud." The pamphlets, which were authorized and paid for by the group, Iowans for Life, accused Gingrich of campaigning for "pro-partial birth abortion candidates," urging "fellow Republicans to drop the pro-life issue because it was too divisive," and leaving any mention of abortion out of his book," Winning the Future." Gingrich has recently been taking steps to consolidate his support among social conservatives and evangelical Christians. Over the course of the week, he offered his support for two pledges: an anti-gay marriage vow created by the Iowa organization, The Family Leader, and a personhood pledge sponsored by the group, Personhood USA.

SOCIAL CONSERVATIVE LEADER TALKS OF 'FORGIVENESS' TOWARD NEWT. Though no one speaks for the entire evangelical community in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats' voice is one of the loudest and most influential. And, listen closely to what he has to say about Newt Gingrich: "The heart of our Christian faith, which doesn't get talked enough about is forgiveness," Vander Plaats said in an interview with ABC News. "When there's life change, the scripture says the heavens rejoice. Well, if scripture says that, then we probably should rejoice as well." Vander Plaats, the CEO of a well-known Iowa social conservative group called The Family Leader, is searching for a candidate to endorse with less than three weeks to go before the Jan. 3 caucuses. He and his board of directors plan to meet after Thursday night's presidential debate to see if they can coalesce behind a candidate. One thing is clear: his group is looking to throw their weight behind anybody but Mitt Romney. "Is Newt flawed? You bet he's flawed," he said. "But Bob Vander Plaats is flawed as well."

MIKE HUCKABEE: ONE ON ONE. A dispatch from ABC's Shushannah Walshe (the author of ABC's morning tipsheet, "Good Morning Iowa"):

DES MOINES - At the premiere of an anti-abortion film that he co-produced, Mike Huckabee said he would not be a kingmaker for the GOP in the next three week and told ABC News he would not endorse any candidate before the Iowa caucuses on January 3, and that he may not back anyone before the primary fight ends. "I don't see it happening in the primary because I want people to look at these candidates and to make the decision based on what their heart and soul told them is right about these folks," Huckabee said Wednesday night, adding he hasn't even made his own choice yet. "I don't want to try and tell somebody 'here's who you ought to vote for.' I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for, I mean honestly. I don't have that settled in my own heart yet," the former Arkansas governor added. "There are some good people, most of these people are my friends, I know them, I've worked with many of them and I know all of them and if you had to tell me tonight to go into the voting booth and vote I would have a hard time myself."


MITT ROMNEY'S SECRET WEAPON IN IOWA. He's only set foot in Iowa a handful of times during the primary season, and by all accounts, he's only spending a fraction of the $10 million he invested in the state four years ago, but Mitt Romney has something else going for him: a network of highly-motivated, politically-connected volunteers willing to engage in door-to-door combat for him even as Romney spends more time elsewhere. With only five full time staffers in the state, the Romney campaign is relying on a cadre of invested "super volunteers," whose prominence as elected officials or business professionals allow them to use their talents and influence to help with the campaign's efforts here - free of charge.  Many of these volunteers hold positions in Romney's Iowa campaign organization that might have been filled by paid staff four years ago when Romney invested much more heavily in the state. Back then Romney had a whopping 52 paid employees in Iowa alone. On the day of Romney's sixth trip to the state as a presidential candidate, here's a look at some of the members of his elite Iowa volunteer corps:

MOMENTUM KEY TO GINGRICH'S HAWKEYE STATE STRATEGY. "Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has little choice but to rely on momentum to carry him to victory in the Iowa caucuses," reports the Associated Press' Tom Beaumont. He has a skeleton campaign organization in a state where successful caucus candidates typically have had well-built machines aimed at turning out supporters. To build a stronger operation with less than three weeks until the leadoff 2012 contest, he has to scramble. The former House speaker is hoping the typical rules don't apply to him, in a campaign that already has been far from typical. 'You're not going to have a successful campaign in the caucuses on organization alone,' said John Stineman, an uncommitted Iowa Republican who ran Steve Forbes' 2000 caucus campaign. 'You have to have some heat. Newt's getting hot at the right time. It's a matter of whether he can sustain the heat.' Getting a winning share of support from caucusgoers in 1,774 precinct-level party meetings across the state on a cold, early January night requires some level of coordination, such as nailing down supporters in each of Iowa's 99 counties."

BACHMANN CAMP ACCUSES GINGRICH OF BUYING TEA PARTY SUPPORT. "The Tea Party battleground in South Carolina is heating up between the Michele Bachmann campaign and the Newt Gingrich campaign," reports ABC's Elicia Dover. "No Republican since 1980 has gone on to win the Republican Party's nomination without first winning South Carolina, and the candidates know it. Bachmann's South Carolina representative, Wesley Donehue, told the Columbia Free Times last month that while Bachmann is gaining actual Tea Party support, Gingrich is buying his. 'Bachmann is trying to grow an organic base of supporters, and Newt Gingrich is trying to buy off tea party groups,'  Donehue said. 'Newt Gingrich knows that the only way he can get the tea party vote is to buy it.' Bachmann's national spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, told ABC News Wednesday night that Bachmann only has Tea Party members who volunteer, unlike the Gingrich campaign. 'Donehue said he's paying a lot people for their help and support on a campaign, but he wasn't accusing him of doing anything illegal,' Stewart said. Tonight, the Gingrich campaign lashed back at Bachmann… 'We're not sure about the strategy of other campaigns, but we know our campaign and our effort to court Tea Party members to come be part of it is first not to challenge their character,' said R.C. Hammond, spokesman for the Gingrich campaign."

TIME FOR A HUNTSMAN BOOMLET? Jon Huntsman's campaign manager Matt David circulated an e-mail message to supporters last night touting the results of new polls that showed Huntsman climbing to a more competitive position nationally and in New Hampshire where he edged out Ron Paul for the third place position in the Granite State. Here's an excerpt of David's note, which doubled as a fundraising pitch for the campaign: "A Suffolk University poll just released a few minutes ago shows Governor Huntsman surging in New Hampshire, jumping into third place with 13 percent of the vote. … This comes on the heels of a new Wall Street Journal poll that shows Governor Huntsman's support steadily rising across the nation. The American people are desperately searching for a principled leader who can unite Republicans and Independents to defeat Barack Obama next November. As the L.A. Times noted earlier today, people are now beginning to recognize Jon Huntsman as that leader."

REPLAY: HUNTSMAN ON 'THE VIEW': 'LOSING IS NOT AN OPTION.' Huntsman, who decided early not to make a play for the first-in-the-nation caucus state in Iowa, has put all of his chips on winning in New Hampshire. Asked if he would drop out if lost there, he said in an interview on ABC's "The View" this week: "Losing is not an option. There's too much at stake." -ABC's Russell Goldman

RICK PERRY'S PLEA TO VOTERS. Winding up the first day of his bus tour, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked voters at a restaurant here to have his "back in Iowa," and, in return, he promised to have their back in Washington, D.C., ABC's Arlette Saenz reports from Denison, Iowa. "This campaign's not about me. This campaign's about millions of Americans who want to take our country back, want to take it back from Washington and Wall Street, get it back to Main Street," Perry said at a meet-and-greet event here at Cronk's Café Restaurant and Lounge. "If you'll have my back in Iowa on Jan. 3, I'll have your back in Washington, D.C., for four years." Perry continued to describe himself as a Washington outsider, but this time he took it one step further, calling out those candidates who served as members of Congress and naming Mitt Romney as a candidate from Wall Street. "The difference between me and my other colleagues that are standing on that podium with me is that: Who has the record and where have they been?" Perry said. "And we have a Washington insider in practically every one of those whose name is either congressman or former congressman. We have a Wall Streeter, in the case of Mitt Romney, and I'm the only person on that stage who's an outsider."

ON THE TRAIL: ANN ROMNEY TOUT'S MITT'S CHARACTER. "Tucked away in a suburb of western Iowa this evening, Ann Romney offered a rare glimpse into the private life she shares with the man who hopes to become the next president, admitting that it's a side many may not hear but is 'always a lot more fun,'" ABC's Emily Friedman notes. "Her husband, Mitt Romney, said Ann, stood by her through her life's challenges, and has proven that he has the 'the character and the integrity to make us proud and to trust him and to know that he is a really, really good person.' As her husband's campaign launches more aggressive attacks on GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich, Ann Romney focused her remarks on illustrating Romney's family-man persona."

OHIO PRIMARY MOVED TO MARCH. Per the Columbus Dispatch: "Democratic and Republican House leaders worked out a deal today on a new congressional map and a single 2012 primary on March 6, instead of the current split primary that moves presidential and congressional races to June. … Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, said the new map would contain at least two changes to an updated congressional map that Republicans offeredin early November. The changes to that map appear to be limited to a minor move in the new 3rd District in Franklin County that ensures state Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Grandview Heights, who has filed to run for the seat, will live inside the district."

IN THE NOTE'S INBOX: ROMNEY REWIND. Democratic Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century's foundation announced the launch of today.What is it? From the group: "Dismayed when they learned there was no archive of Mitt Romney's 1994 Senate campaign website, American Bridge created one on its own as a public service to voters.   Imitating mid-90s HTML and Romney's former positions on the issues, it's likely that is exactly what his 1994 campaign would have made itself… had it actually created website. (It's understandable why they didn't. When Mitt Romney started his long political career way back in 1994, it was unclear whether that Internet thing was for real.)"


@ jparkABC : Today is the last Day to vote in the  #RTCA executive committee elections. Broadcasters, please come out and support me!

@ newtgingrich : The Wyden-Ryan bipartisan Medicare reform plan is a major breakthrough with Democrats and Republicans working together to solve big problems

@ StevenTDennis : Best jobless claims number since 2008 - 366K. If this trend continues, this is a huge deal.

@ AmericanXRoads : Watch our new video featuring  @KarlRove discussing what's at stake in #2012. Let's get this done:  #tcot

@ nationaljournal : @hotlinereid explains how football strategy offers lessons on who is likely to win the presidential race.



- Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman will take part in the Fox New/Iowa GOP Debate this evening in Sioux City, Iowa.

-Before the debate, Newt Gingrich will attend a meet and greet at the Willow Ridge Golf Course in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

- Rick Santorum will be out on the trail in Iowa hosting three "Faith, Family, and Freedom" town hall's in Rockwell City, Sac City, and Holstein, Iowa.

-While Ron Paul is debating his Republican rivals in Iowa, his campaign will open four state headquarters which will host debate watch parties. The headquarters are located in Colorado, Maine, North Dakota, and Washington State.

-ABC's Josh Haskell

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