DES MOINES, Iowa - Last night in Marshalltown, Iowa, Newt Gingrich sounded like a man resigned to his fate as a fading front-runner.
"If I could have done anything different, I would have pulled the plug on Romney's PAC," Gingrich said. "I probably should have responded faster and more aggressive than that."
For almost a month, Gingrich has been under withering attack from the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has spent close to $3 million labeling him as a Washington insider loaded down with political baggage.
The attacks have taken their toll here in Iowa. Not only has Gingrich plunged in the polls, but his image among Iowa voters has been deeply damaged, making it all but impossible for Gingrich to bounce back by Tuesday. Just 12 percent of Iowa caucusgoers pick the former House speaker as their first choice and 23 percent say he is the candidate they "like least," according to the Des Moines Register poll.
He also gets high marks among voters for being the "most ego driven" (41 percent), "least dedicated to limiting the influence of government" (32 percent) and the "least consistent" (36 percent).
Still, Gingrich believes he can turn things around in the next two primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, by responding, refuting and even returning fire.
"You can do very calm, very pleasant ads that the nature of the Republican Party is such that a calm and pleasant ad that says, 'He was for tax-paid abortions, I'm against it,'" Gingrich said. "You can say it happily, pleasantly, it works just by the nature of the data."
Even so, recent polling in New Hampshire shows the damage inflicted on Gingrich by the Iowa ads have spilled out beyond the Hawkeye State borders.
A CNN-Time poll taken the last week of December showed Gingrich dropping 10 points. More important, 40 percent of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said that they "would not consider" voting for Gingrich on Jan. 10. Only Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry got higher "would not consider" scores (59 and 60 percent respectively).
This leaves South Carolina as Gingrich's best bet for a comeback. He says he has raised at least $9 million for this quarter, suggesting that he'll have the funds to help finance this new, feisty but "calm and pleasant" round of attacks.
Even so, Gingrich is going to have a lot of company in the Palmetto State. With Romney holding a sizeable lead in New Hampshire, and South Carolina much more attractive to socially conservative candidates such as Rick Santorum and Perry, it's more than likely that South Carolina Palmetto state is going to get most of the action post-Iowa.