From NBC's Alex Moe
JOHNSTON, Iowa -- Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told hundreds of Iowans in the state’s largest county that his new front-runner status is “disorienting.”
A crowd of more than 400 Republicans listened as the former House speaker laid out his vision for the country at the Polk County GOP Victory Dinner.
“This is such a rapid change that we’re having to rethink our own internal operation right now and where we are,” he told more than two-dozen journalists following his speech.
“We’re in a mess. We’re in a mess in Washington, we’re in a mess economically, we’re in a mess with radical judges. Just go down the list,” he told the sold-out crowd.
It was a notably different speech than Gingrich typically gives on the trail -- something he acknowledged afterwards.
“I would not have given this speech 2 weeks ago because it wouldn’t have seemed to make sense for this guy who was the underdog to be up here talking about the totality of the future,” Gingrich told reporters.
The former speaker dedicated a larger portion of his speech Thursday to attacks on President Barack Obama, calling him a “Saul Alinsky radical.”
“He believes in a world in which the classic America has disappeared. He believes in a world where the United Nations is more important than the United States Congress. He believes in a world of internationally law rather than of the U.S. Constitution,” Gingrich noted.
But the spotlight was also on Gingrich’s position on a controversial issue – child labor laws. During an earlier stop Thursday, he suggested children in poor neighborhoods should start working. Pressed following the dinner, Gingrich didn’t say what age he thought might be appropriate to get a job.
“I think the country has to decide. Different states may do it differently, different cities might do it differently,” Gingrich said. “I am trying to create a mindset that says the best way to get poor children to have a chance to rise is in fact to help them early on, learn the work ethic.”
During his roughly 45-minute speech, the speaker was interrupted frequently by applause.
“Newt Gingrich is always well organized. He is focused. And his message resonated with this crowd,” Polk Co. GOP Chairman Kevin McLaughlin told NBC News. “Social conservatives and social moderates are coming to Newt. And I think that’s a sign we have a uniter that will go the distance.”
But, the speaker still has a long road ahead. Before getting to Obama, he would have to take on Mitt Romney, whom he didn’t mention during his speech. Gingrich did not take the bait when reporters asked him to distinguish himself from the former Massachusetts governor.
“I am happy to be who I am. I think that distinguishes me from Romney,” Gingrich said. He also stated he would “probably” not attack Romney during the two upcoming debates in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
But, he added, “If he puts his hand on my shoulder, that might be different,” a reference to a heated exchange during an October debate, when Romney placed his hand on Rick Perry.
The former House speaker, who is leading in many state and national polls, has come a long way since this summer.
“As many of you know, I was supposedly in June and July dead. So it is great to be back,” Gingrich joked during the dinner.
He received three standing ovations as 15 TV cameras rolled.
“I have to confess that while I was hoping for a wave, we’ve had sort of a tsunami,” he said.
(NBC's Jamie Novogrod contributed to this report.)