A pro-Mitt Romney super PAC pummeled Newt Gingrich with negative commercials in Iowa, dismantling Gingrich's front-runner status. Restore Our Future spent $700,000 in one week alone on the attacks and $3.1 million overall - before acceding to Gingrich's requests to stop them.
"If you can't handle the heat in this little kitchen," Romney told Fox News, "the heat that's gonna come from [President] Obama's Hell's Kitchen is going to be a heck of a lot hotter." It was akin to saying "There's no crying in politics." (Romney also pointed out that the super PAC is wholly independent from his campaign.)
We could be witnessing a narrative change from Romney the executive manager who helped revive the Salt Lake City Olympics, to Romney the athletic combatant. In so doing, Romney may have co-opted the optics which drew voters to Gingrich in the first place: that of a fighter who can take it to Obama in the general election.
The latest Public Policy Polling data in Iowa shows Gingrich fell from first to third place in the month of December, declining from 27 to 14 percent in the state. National polls reflect the same trend.
The Gingrich "fall" was primarily a result of actual issues (while Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain collapsed due to competency and character concerns). The super PAC ads hit Gingrich for his reversal on cap and trade after his earlier "on the couch" TV spot with Nancy Pelosi; earning $1.6 million for his company as a Washington power broker for Freddie Mac; and immigration policy to name a few.
This was a surprising campaign tactic when conventional wisdom held that Gingrich's personal foibles were low-hanging fruit. But such character woes were old news, the Romney supporters recognized, and Gingrich's base elevated him despite them.
Romney's grittiness hasn't exactly come smoothly - despite his practice with going negative four years ago in Iowa, too. He offered a "$10,000" bet against the tough-talking Texan, Perry, at a debate in December. He pulled his punch by characterizing Gingrich as "zany" in a New York Times interview a few days later. These incidents merely reinforced Romney's awkwardness and lack of creativity.
Romney's evolution harkens back to President George H.W. Bush, who announced his support for Romney last week. Bush, a prep schooler and "nice guy" like Romney, was once tagged with a "Wimp Factor" label on the cover of Newsweek. He finally overcame that perception when his campaign went negative against its Democratic opponent in 1988.
It is unclear whether Romney deserves the credit for Gingrich's decline. Although Gingrich did not commit any major gaffes, his huge leads across many early states were unsustainable. So Romney may have been aided by Sir Isaac Newton's law of gravity.
There was also a convergence of attacks on Gingrich by Ron Paul, a scathing National Review editorial, and unsubtle panic by the GOP establishment that the party might nominate him.
Famed pro wrestler Ric Flair used to say "To be the man, you gotta beat the man." When the smoke cleared in Iowa last week, it appeared that Romney had scored the takedown.
Presidential politics is as much about perception, style, and tone, as it is about ideology and issues. Romney seeks to add "competent brawler" to his repertoire.
Considering the GOP base has problems with Romney's ideology and some of his social issues, this should be good news for him. This presumes that Romney's "Hell's Kitchen" persona does not backfire with Iowans, who have historically rejected negative attacks.
Adam Silbert, an attorney, has served on Democratic Party campaigns. He lives in New York City.