Bad Turnout

Inside Newt Gingrich’s Sad New Hampshire Primary-Night Party

Lloyd Grove reports from Gingrich’s sparsely attended election-night bash in a huge Manchester ballroom.

Allison Joyce / AP Photo

By the time reality intruded on Newt Gingrich’s New Hampshire primary campaign, it was already too late.

His operatives had spent precious resources for Tuesday’s election-night celebration to hire Tuxedo Junction, a bar mitzvah and wedding band, and book a cavernous ballroom at the Radisson Manchester that proved about four times too large for the number of partygoers. They included dozens of Gingrich supporters, to be sure, but also a fair amount of folks who voted for rival Republican presidential candidates, as well as political tourists from out of state, random hotel guests, and even a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“I’m here because I’m curious,” said bow-tied immigration attorney George Bruno, who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Belize after leading the Granite State Dems. “This has been a very unusual primary. “

As Gingrich was racking up an anemic 10 percent of the vote, enough to fight for fourth place with Rick Santorum, his volunteer coordinator Pam Smith threw her arms around state representative Laurie Pettengill.

“I’m so tired,” Smith moaned. “I only got two hours’ sleep.” She added: “There’s always South Carolina.”

Pettengill, one of Gingrich’s county chairmen, looked fairly exhausted herself.

“I’m going to get myself a drink,” she announced, and made her way to the cash bar.

The partygoers listened mutely to Mitt Romney’s victory speech, then Ron Paul’s, and Tuxedo Junction struck up a blues number as Jon Huntsman appeared on the big screen tuned to the Fox News Channel.

In due course, the formal festivities got under way, and campaign staffer Andrew Hemingway corralled the attendees to the middle of the room, in front of the stage, so it wouldn’t look so empty when the candidate showed up. Members of the media helpfully filled in some of the gaps. Ardent Gingrich supporter Bill O’Brien, speaker of the New Hampshire House, delivered a few choice insults to the Republican frontrunner, that “Massachusetts moderate,” and claimed that “Newt has won the conservative primary.” More weirdly, O’Brien added: “This is truly a special evening.”

Finally Gingrich arrived in a phalanx of private security men along with his daughters Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman, as well as his wife, Callista, who’d changed from navy blue to Reagan red for the occasion.

“Newt! Newt! Newt!” some in the crowd chanted. A 60-something man in a topcoat held up a handmade sign: “MITT ZOMBIE. NO SOUL. POLITICIAN. HORROR STORY.”

Gingrich, on the other hand, didn’t mention Romney, let alone congratulate him, nor any of the other candidates. Forcing a wan smile, he declared: “This is Step 2 of a long process. Let me put in context where we are.”

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As he spoke, mixing snippets of his stump speech with rosy scenarios of the coming Gingrich presidency, Santorum was filling the big screen, giving a victory speech of his own.

“This campaign is going to go on to South Carolina,” Gingrich vowed—to dutiful whoops.

But on this particular Tuesday night, Newt’s bar mitzvah was not to be.