Slouching Toward Irrelevance

03.28.12

Newt Gingrich’s Zombie Campaign, Neither Dead nor Alive

He hasn’t exactly quit the GOP race, but with a scaled-back travel schedule, campaign debts, and staff cuts, his candidacy barely has a pulse. Howard Kurtz on Gingrich’s long slide into irrelevance.

Newt Gingrich, who briefly led the Republican presidential pack, has now retreated to a kind of strange limbo.

He’s not out of the race, but he’s not fully in, either—if “in” is defined as running in most of the remaining states to accumulate the maximum number of delegates.

Instead, he is pursuing some kind of Newtonian third way, dropping his campaign manager, cutting a third of his staff, slashing his schedule, and maneuvering in hopes of a brokered convention in Tampa.

“In Newt World, as defined by his personal reality-distortion field, this is the equivalent of suspending the campaign,” says Rich Galen, who worked for Gingrich when he was House speaker. “It’s not in his nature to admit defeat or failure. It allows him to do his circular reasoning and convince himself, if not anybody else, this is still an ongoing operation.”

It’s odd to see a politician of Gingrich’s prominence retreating to the wings rather than exiting the stage. But after a series of ugly finishes in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, it became clear that the Georgian couldn’t even win in the South—and that his campaign had slipped into debt.

“He seems to be resigned to the financial reality but not the political reality,” says Darrell West, a Brookings Institution vice president. “There’s a delusional quality to his perspective.”

Yet Gingrich remains defiant despite his zombie status, insisting he’s still a viable rival to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

“For some reason everybody in this establishment is chanting that Santorum and I should quit. Well, you know, Romney has to earn this. It’s not going to be given to him and we have every right to run,” Gingrich told Washington’s WTOP radio.

And he was not pleased by a question about whether staying in the race, at least nominally, was linked to his personal dislike of Romney.

“No, it has nothing to do with that,” he insisted. “Why do you guys try to reduce leading America to the smallest and pettiest and most personal questions? It’s about representing a set of ideas and a set of values that are really important.”

Classic Newt.

He challenges the premise of the question, sticking it to his favorite target, the media. And he portrays himself as the candidate of big ideas who struggles with the smallness of American politics.

A Gingrich spokesman did not respond to an interview request.

“It’s not in his nature to admit defeat or failure.”

Gingrich did bring intellectual firepower to the race, as well as tenacity. And he is right to say that the press prematurely wrote him off, twice.

The first obituaries came last year when 16 members of Gingrich’s staff quit to protest his unorthodox style, such as taking a cruise with his wife Callista in the heat of the campaign. But by December, Gingrich had surged into the lead as the likes of Rick Perry and Herman Cain imploded.

Gingrich was deemed toast again after Romney buried him in Iowa under a multimillion-dollar barrage of ads. But he bounced back and won South Carolina. Perhaps that convinced him that the next redemption was always around the corner.

The real turning point for Gingrich was Romney’s refusal to participate in any more debates. Gingrich was a force in these televised encounters, often by attacking the moderators, and shutting down the debates amounted to cutting off his oxygen. That left the former Fox commentator gasping for whatever attention he could garner from periodic TV interviews and his dwindling press corps, the remnants of which has now abandoned him.

“He’s been playing the elite-media game for months,” says Galen. “He trashes everyone all week and then gets on the Sunday shows and reaches millions of people.” Romney left a void there by refusing to appear on any Sunday program other than Fox News Sunday. But it’s hard to get those bookings if you’re not an active candidate.

Gingrich’s walking-dead status contrasts with his conduct back in 1998. After a series of scandals as speaker, and after surviving a coup led by renegade Republicans, he didn’t just give up his leadership post when the House GOP lost seats during the drive to impeach Bill Clinton. He resigned his congressional seat outright.

In previous White House campaigns, Gingrich might well have quit when his money ran out. In the age of super PACs, however, his billionaire pal, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, could keep writing seven-figure checks to bolster the campaign’s efforts. But those dollars aren’t available for the campaign’s own staff and road expenses. That, in part, is why the Gingrich team is now talking about a reduced travel schedule in which the candidate will dip into states where he might do well, such as North Carolina and Texas.

“The campaign seems over to me because the guy just doesn’t have any delegates,” West says. “Without delegates, people aren’t going to take him very seriously. He wants a voice but seems naive about what’s required to have a strong voice at the convention.” (For the record, Romney has 568 delegates, Santorum 273, and Gingrich 135, with 1,144 needed to win.)

Gingrich now says he’ll run a positive campaign, which might ease pressure from a Republican establishment unhappy with his attacks on Romney, the most likely nominee. (Of course, he has made, and broken, such pledges before.) But as Newt knows full well, such an approach is less likely to generate news coverage than slashing attacks.

At some point, Gingrich will presumably try to rebuild his Beltway consulting business. In the meantime, even as he vows to take the fight to Tampa, he may become a blip on the media elite’s radar.

In the end, Gingrich’s campaign reflected his strengths and weaknesses, by turns substantive and nasty, passionate and erratic.

“Everyone said he didn’t have the discipline to do this,” Galen says. “And everyone was right—he didn’t.”