ALGONA, Iowa—Where did Newt Gingrich's fervent support in Iowa go? Maybe it wasn't so fervent to begin with.
Even among the Iowans attending his campaign events this week, it can be difficult to find ardent supporters. Many give long, thoughtful pauses before talking about their feelings on the former House speaker.
Is Gingrich their top choice?
"... I'm undecided," said Burton TeKippe Jr. of Mason City at a Wednesday event at a Mason City mall.
"... Pretty much," said one woman from Forest City who declined to be named.
"... I'm undecided," said Jayme Lentz of Algona at a campaign stop in that town on Wednesday.
Can Gingrich beat Obama?
"I'm not so sure," said the woman from Forest City, after thinking for a few seconds.
In these caucusgoers' hesitant answers is an indication of just how fluid the race still is.
According to the most recent CNN/Time/ORC poll, Gingrich is just the latest candidate to experience a roller coaster of fortunes in the Hawkeye State. Just a month ago, Gingrich had the support of 33 percent of likely caucusgoers in Iowa. Now, just 14 percent name him as their top choice. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken first place in Iowa polls, with 25 percent support, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with 22 percent.
Even some supporters who are firmly in Gingrich's camp are not without their reservations. "[Gingrich is] my first choice," said Wendell Steven of Lakota. After a pause, he qualified that statement: "... for what we've got to choose from, yes."
Lentz echoed similar sentiments: "[Gingrich is] my top choice, but to be honest, a lot of questions have been raised," he said, citing the former speaker's "baggage"--questions about his ethical conduct in office as well as in his personal life.
Gingrich is not the first candidate to be elevated, then discarded by Iowa voters. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll in August, only to quickly be eclipsed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
What happened to Gingrich? For one, says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, he simply doesn't have the money or the organization in Iowa that Romney has. Romney and Paul, she adds, both ran in Iowa in 2008 and maintained some of their support and organization from four years ago. Perry likewise has benefited from full campaign coffers, having spent more on ads in the state than any other candidate. And all of those ads, particularly the negative ones, have an effect, says Bystrom: "People say they hate negative ads, but the reason candidates spend so much money on them is that they work. Gingrich has been hit by some third-party ads that seem to be pro-Romney, and he's also been hit by Ron Paul."
Bachmann and Perry, as well as Romney and Paul, appear to have gained from Gingrich's dwindling support, but former Sen. Rick Santorum seems to be the primary beneficiary. With polling numbers once stuck in the single digits, Santorum has now surged to third place in the Iowa polls, with the support of 16 percent of caucusgoers.
Bystrom says that this year's caucus is unusual in the sense that two candidates--Romney and Paul--have strong, relatively unchanging bases of support. The third-place candidate, she says, has been a rotating "soup du jour" of social conservatives. And candidates like Santorum and Bachmann have an edge over Gingrich, having spent much more time in Iowa than he has.
But what is not unusual, she adds, is many Iowans making up their minds in the week leading up to the caucuses. In that final week, says Bystrom, "they really start looking at, I think, electability as they get closer and closer to the caucuses."
Electability is, indeed, the name of the game among Iowa caucusgoers, who take seriously their state's first-in-the-nation status, and therefore think very carefully about choosing a candidate who can succeed nationwide. "They go out to meet the candidates, they read a lot, they pay attention to the polls, they pay attention to the ads," says Bystrom.
Several attendees of Gingrich's events cite electability as their chief concern. "Anybody but Obama" seems to be a common refrain among Iowa Republicans these days, and a candidate who is perceived to be able to defeat the incumbent president will likely do well here.
Jack Baker of Algona said that he simply wants the most conservative candidate possible, but he added, "Anybody but Obama."
And as Steve Palmer of Mason City put it at Gingrich's stop there on Wednesday, "I'm 100 percent behind whoever comes out on top. I want somebody who can win."