Campaign Chaos

Can Newt’s ‘Nontraditional’ Campaign Stay on the Rails?

Riding a wave of momentum in South Carolina, Newt spent his final day zigzagging around the state. Andrew Romano went along for the ride, and found a campaign that may be too chaotic to make it across the finish line.

01.21.12 9:45 AM ET

At Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., Newt Gingrich made a stunning confession. “I am not capable,” he said, “of being a sort of ‘traditional’ candidate.”

I kid. Newt’s stunning confession wasn’t “stunning.” It wasn’t even much of a confession.

We’ve known since at least last June—when Gingrich’s entire senior staff resigned and left the campaign $1 million in debt in large part because their boss dropped $500,000 at Tiffany’s and refused to cancel a trip to the Greek Isles—that the former House speaker is terrible at being a “traditional” candidate, which I believe is his euphemism for the sort of White House hopeful who can, you know, raise money, stage professional events, stay on message, and so forth.

And we were reminded of Newt’s inability to conform to “traditional” standards of competency when the super PACs supporting Mitt Romney and Ron Paul unloaded more than $4 million in negative advertisements on him in Iowa and all he could do was whine about it, because he was broke.

Still, Newt’s final day on the trail here in South Carolina was something of a revelation. Really. The level of nontraditionalness on display was, to borrow a phrase, utterly profound—so profound, frankly, that it makes it hard to imagine Gingrich ever really being able to ramp up and go toe to toe with President Obama’s ultrasophisticated reelection operation, should the Georgian’s latest Lazarus-like surge somehow extend beyond the borders of the Palmetto State.

The day began in Charleston at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where Gingrich was scheduled to address a crowd of admiring conservatives around 9 a.m. Except that at 9 a.m., there were no admiring conservatives, or people of any political persuasion, in the room. And there was no Gingrich. By 9:15, at which point the press pack outnumbered the audience, some staffer decided that it would be better for Newt to skip the speech than address an empty arena, and reporters were informed that a “scheduling conflict” had prevented the candidate from attending. An hour later, Ron Paul spoke and the crowd size quadrupled.

Next up was the children’s hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina, just down the road. By the time Gingrich arrived, there was a horde of about 60 hacks in the lobby, and as they shoved and scrambled to follow him down the facility’s narrow hallways, doctors and nurses were forced to stop working and wait for the ink-stained storm to pass. Not that the disruption yielded any news or anything. Gingrich spent the whole tour whispering to his guide about brain science and Medicaid funding, so unless you were one of the two people positioned right next to him (as opposed to one of the 58 people spilling down the hall) you couldn’t hear a thing he said. After 15 minutes of awkward jostling, Newt’s minders gave up and herded us back into the lobby.

Fortunately, the Gingriches weren’t finished with MUSC. When Newt and Callista completed their tour, they joined us in the seventh-floor atrium, which houses a Fisher-Price-filled play space for ailing kids. We’d heard that Newt would answer questions. He didn’t. Instead, Callista read from her children’s book about an elephant named Ellis as a man in a large elephant costume sat silently beside her. At one point, a toddler in braids walked abruptly away from the reading area. “I’m afraid,” she told her mom. I wanted to ask her which figure had freaked her out, the unblinking pachyderm or the lady with the strange helmet of hair, but I restrained myself. As soon as Callista finished winning over crucial swing voters on the eve of a make-or-break primary—I mean, promoting her book in front of a captive press corps—the Gingriches shuffled silently back to their bus.

“I feel like such a sucker,” said one reporter. “I’ve been played.”

The day’s third stop, at the Cinema Rooms in Orangeburg, wasn’t quite as ambitiously nontraditional as MUSC, but it had its moments. Gingrich was nearly an hour late, for one thing, even though his official schedule showed no potential conflicts. Tardiness isn’t unusual on the trail, but the candidate’s staff typically keeps the people tasked with introducing him up to speed, so they can time their remarks and manage the crowd. Not Team Gingrich. Stuck onstage without any sense of when Newt would show up, the emcee riffed about the candidate’s virtues for 10 minutes, then read his prepared remarks, then started telling stories about … Strom Thurmond.

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“You can’t go wrong with Strom,” he explained. When word (mercifully) arrived that Gingrich was ready to take the stage, the emcee asked the audience to start chanting Newt’s name, which they did ... until South Carolina state House Speaker Bobby Harrell appeared at the podium instead. The cheers petered out. “We’ll get to that again in a minute,” he said.

I could go on—the campaign badly misjudged the size of the crowd in Orangeburg, so half of the attendees had to squeeze into the small room where they’d set up the stage while the other half spread out in the much larger (and largely empty) room next door—but I think you get the idea.

My point isn’t to demean Gingrich as a politician. When the guy finally got around to stumping, he was as forceful and funny as he’s been in the debates, tossing out red meat and meaty policy proposals in equal measure. One moment he was dissing Obama for vetoing the Keystone XL Pipeline. (“It’s one thing to not know how to play chess,” he said. “It’s another thing to not know how to play checkers. And it’s another to not know how to play tic-tac-toe.") The next he was delivering a nuanced lecture on his illegal-immigration plan—“it’s slightly complicated, because that’s the real world”—without losing anyone’s attention.

“Newt’ll outdebate Obama any day,” Robert Dibble, 76, told me. “He doesn’t have to think about every word, like Romney. It just automatically comes out of his mouth.” Ernest Baier, 75, seconded the emotion. “Newt is the smartest out of all of them,” he said. “And I want to see someone shut Obama up.”

The problem is that a general-election campaign isn’t just two candidates debating each other to death, a fantasy that a lot of Gingrich voters seem to be clinging to and that Newt seems eager to encourage, what with his incessant chatter about challenging Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style confrontations. A general election is turnout and field and registration and microtargeting and data-mining and fundraising and message control and so on. You know, the stuff that both Romney and Obama do well. The traditional stuff. Newt may finish first in South Carolina; he’s ahead in the final polls. But every day like Friday makes it harder to imagine him as president. Nontraditional may win debates. Traditional wins elections.