On Nov. 4, at precisely the moment Herman Cain was basking in applause at a conservative activists' gathering in Washington, D.C., Newt Gingrich was in a small conference room at the Marriott Hotel here discussing cognitive illness with three brain scientists.
"What I am trying to do is initiate the idea that solving health problems is the best way to reduce costs," Gingrich begins. Look at polio, he says. What if it had not been cured? What if one took the high cost of treating polio in 1950 and simply projected it through 2011? The numbers would be enormous. Without even considering the human benefits, curing polio was far, far cheaper than treating it over decades.
Now Gingrich wants to approach Alzheimer's and other brain disorders the same way. "The scale of brain-related problems is so large and so unreported," he tells the scientists, "that if you think of the supercommittee right now, for example -- they're trying to find $1.5 trillion (in savings) over 10 years. The projection the Alzheimer's Foundation gave me was that Alzheimer's alone could cost $20 trillion in public and private funds between now and 2050." Spending billions on curing Alzheimer's -- sums Congress would never approve in today's political atmosphere -- could save astonishing amounts of money in the long run.
It's the kind of wide-ranging and wonkish discussion Gingrich is known for. Indeed, the former speaker of the House, whose mother spent the last years of her life in a long-term care facility, has devoted a lot of time over the years working on Alzheimer's issues. But now he is in the middle of a presidential campaign. He's in Iowa, with 60 days to go before the caucuses that could decide his future. He is hours away from a crucial speech at the Iowa Republican Party's annual Reagan dinner. And he is spending nearly two hours of his day behind closed doors with three doctors, a couple of aides and one reporter talking about brain research. The topic of the approaching caucuses does not come up.
Gingrich often says he is running an unconventional campaign. Republicans here in Iowa would probably agree, since they don't see him all that much at traditional stump events. But most have no idea just how unconventional the Gingrich campaign really is.
On this day, Gingrich's plan is to integrate his longtime interest in health issues, and in particular brain research, into his appeal to voters. In an interview after the session, Gingrich says he wants to reach "everybody who's worried about Alzheimer's -- and over 55 years of age, it is a more common fear than cancer."
Here in Iowa, the organization Iowa Against Alzheimer's estimates there are 69,000 people over the age of 65 with the disease. Take their spouses and children and relatives and friends -- along with other people so far unaffected by the disease but worried about it -- and you've got a very large group. They vote, and Gingrich wants to reach them.
Gingrich has test-run the idea in a few recent public forums here and in other early voting states.
"In South Carolina, a tea party leader walked up and said, 'My dad died three years ago with Alzheimer's, and I understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish,'" Gingrich says. "People can have a checklist in their head that says on these things, Newt Gingrich understands my world and is trying to make it better." Gingrich plans to work the message into his speeches and discussions with voters more often as voting approaches.
Whatever Gingrich is doing these days, it's working. Thanks in part to impressive performances in several GOP debates, he is moving up in the polls, both nationally and in key early states. He's raising money again after a meltdown -- a massive staff defection and damaging stories about big-spending habits at Tiffany -- that nearly killed his campaign a few months ago. And voters appear to appreciate his sticking with it. In discussions across Iowa in the last week, it is striking how many voters volunteer Gingrich's name as someone they're finding more and more appealing. If either of the current front-runners, Herman Cain or Mitt Romney, were to falter, Gingrich is in a position to benefit greatly.
And he's doing it his own way. Which other candidate would take a large part of a critical day to talk science when the campaign trail beckons, with local officials to meet and hands to shake?
"We'll see if it works," Gingrich says with a laugh. "It's a great experiment."