DECORAH, Iowa -- It was almost exactly five months ago when Newt Gingrich was first campaigning in this far Northeastern town in Iowa, but a lot has changed since his last visit.
Gingrich last visited this section of the Hawkeye State in late July, mere weeks after almost all of the former speaker's senior staff quit. During that visit, Gingrich found himself near Luther College for his wife Callista's band reunion concert.
Gingrich was trailing heavily in the polls and almost $1 million in debt at that point, and ventured into Decorah with a bare-bones staff, introducing himself to diners with a quip: “I will be the only Newt Gingrich on the ballot."
Fast-forward five months to Dec. 27. Gingrich and his wife returned Tuesday to the town where Callista graduated college from to hold an event in the pizza shop beneath the apartment she lived in her senior year at Luther.
A crowd of almost 200 people packed the Mabe's Pizza basement to capacity. Press barely fit; print reporters sat on the floor practically beneath the podium at which Gingrich spoke, while TV cameras and still photographers shoved their way into somewhat acceptable positions to shoot the event.
A malt box, speakers, an advance team, security men with ear pieces and press secretaries were all seen crammed in the crowded room. The campaign manager rarely travels with the candidate anymore and the Gingriches, with their higher profile, cannot chat with the press as much. The crowd lined up for pictures and autographs with the Gingrich’s as soon as the event concluded.
(Contrast that with the late July visit, when just two reporters -- from NBC News and the Los Angeles Times -- tagged along with Gingrich and his wife as they rode in the town's annual Nordic Feset Grand Parade. The former speaker held an impromptu and brief press conference afterward, with no mult box, lights, or campaign press secretary present.)
The former House Speaker is now polling very high in the first-in-the-nation caucus state -- a front-runner by some accounts. He may even win on Jan. 3. The campaign’s fundraising has improved drastically since the summer, although the campaign spokesperson said they would still post some debt at the end of this quarter.
After such a well-attended and somewhat organized event at Mabe’s, it’s hard to think just 21 short weeks ago, Gingrich was riding on the Winneshiek Country GOP float in a parade here, surrounded by floats with Vikings and Wizard of Oz dancers, in which few seemed to take notice a presidential candidate for president was even in the small Iowan town.