Newt Gingrich is scrambling to regain his footing after several polls released on Monday showed him in a freefall and his rivals have moved in for the kill.
Polls from Insider Advantage and Public Policy Polling found the former Speaker in third place in the early caucus state of Iowa, trailing both Mitt Romney and newly minted front-runner Ron Paul.
A similar trend has emerged in the national polls, with Gingrich — who had posted a double-digit leads as recently as a week ago — falling into a deadlock with Romney at 28 percent in a CNN/ORC poll.
It’s a position other GOP presidential contenders have found themselves in: rising to the top of the polls only to find increased expectations and the glare of the spotlight result in a resounding crash as indecisive Republican primary voters switch from candidate to candidate.
Gingrich hasn’t reached rock bottom yet, but political watchers in Iowa say the former Speaker has done little to take advantage of his boomlet, avoiding the hard work necessary to convert popularity into success at the notoriously difficult caucuses.
"There's been this constant conversation saying campaigns have changed in Iowa, candidates don't need to do the retail politics that have traditionally won the state," said Republican strategist Craig Robinson. "When they're high in the polls, they think it's that their Fox News/Facebook strategy works.
“You still have to campaign."
Republicans in the state say Gingrich has been hurt by his decision to take last weekend off. With the exception of a phone call with reporters and a call-in appearance at a national candidate forum held by the Tea Party Patriots, Gingrich was silent.
"The last non-holiday weekend before the Iowa caucuses and Newt Gingrich is nowhere to be found on the campaign trail?" wrote influential conservative Iowa radio show Steve Deace on Twitter. "I really don't understand the Newt Gingrich strategy of letting Iowans watch a whole weekend of attack ads with no campaign stops."
But a flood of negative commercials might have done the most damage to Gingrich's campaign.
Both Paul and a political action committee supporting Romney shelled out millions on attack ads in the past week. The Gingrich campaign estimated that more than $9 million had been spent to attack the former Speaker.
By contrast, Gingrich has spent less than a quarter-million dollars on radio and television ads in the Hawkeye State. Even with an additional buy of $242,000, which was reported by MSNBC Monday, the former Speaker will have spent just over half a million dollars on advertisements, far outpaced by his rival candidates eager to deflate his popularity.
The Gingrich campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The former Speaker has been partially handicapped by the disastrous start to his campaign.
The combination of a late, sudden rise in the polls, establishment support for Romney and a deep existing campaign debt — he owed more than $1.2 million at the end of the third reporting quarter — meant that Gingrich had few resources to lean on in building up a ground operation.
High-profile hires like pollster David Winston and political director Martin Baker were intended as signals to the Republican establishment that Gingrich was preparing for a serious run, but might be too little, too late.
Still, Robinson believes that Gingrich should have been able to recover from his early disadvantages and capitalize on what was theoretically a perfectly timed rise to prominence. Instead, he says, the Gingrich campaign has been "lazy" about the retail politics necessary to win in Iowa.
"How much money does it really take to campaign in Iowa?" Robinson said. "Even though it was bad right out the gate, Newt Gingrich drew crowds and could connect with voters. Rick Santorum is doing it without money, Michele Bachmann is doing it now. It's not luxurious, it's not necessarily fun, but it's how you build lasting support. I think they've taken a really lazy approach."
Instead, Gingrich has seen his supporters defect to candidates who have been more adept at adopting textbook Iowa political campaigns, with a particular challenge coming from Paul.
"The numbers are more or less what many of us in our campaign had expected, because we have been working to that end, and we have been organizing and doing the things we are supposed to do," Paul said last week in an interview with Fox News.
Paul is the mostly likely to benefit from Republican unease with Gingrich. If voter turnout is low across the board because conservative voters have been unable to coalesce around a single candidate, Paul's dedicated and enthusiastic supporters could propel him to a surprise victory in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Still, there could be opportunity for Gingrich to reassert himself in the race. The former Speaker won a nationwide straw poll of nearly 23,000 Tea Party voters Sunday night, with more than half of those supporters saying they were "enthusiastic" or "extremely enthusiastic" to vote for him.
And there are reports that there have been large donations to political action committees supporting the former Speaker, which could help him close the spending gap.
Gingrich might also win the endorsement of the influential Family Leader group, which represents conservative Christians in the state. He is supported by the group's leader, Bob Vander Plaats, although others in the organization have questioned his admitted extramarital affairs and multiple divorces. A spokeswoman for the group said the organization could announce an endorsement early this week.
But Robinson says for Gingrich to regain traction in Iowa, he'll have to dedicate himself to the type of retail politicking that he has been reluctant to engage in.
"I'd just schedule town halls, spend all of my time in front of Iowans answering any questions they may have," Robinson said. "In the last debate, he presented himself very well. If he can handle [Fox News moderators] Chris Wallace and Brett Baier, I think he can handle Jim and Sally in a local town, and they would love the opportunity to do it ... It would give him a chance to answer the questions and provide an enormous amount of earned media."