Newt Gingrich, Increasingly Irrelevant, Bets It All on Delaware

Newt Gingrich, one-time frontrunner, is now dedicating his campaign to Delaware. Ben Jacobs reports.

Ann Heisenfelt / AP Photo

It sounds like a punchline: Newt Gingrich is making his last stand in Delaware.

The erstwhile GOP frontrunner is focusing what remains of his campaign on a state that has been irrelevant in national politics since it ratified the Constitution in 1787. But joking aside, the former House speaker has sound reasons for staking what remains of his presidential ambitions on the First State’s winner-take-all primary.

Delaware may be a solidly Democratic state in presidential elections but its Republican primary voters have a strong conservative streak. In 2010, Mike Castle, a longtime Republican congressman and former governor, lost the Republican Senate primary there to Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell. While Castle carried the moderate Republicans around Wilmington, the state’s largest city, he was trounced in southern Delaware where conservatives gave O’Donnell an upset win. Gingrich is hoping to use a similar coalition to pull off an upset of his own.

"We have an opportunity to pick up some votes and some delegates," said Gingrich campaign chairman Bob Walker, “because southern Delaware is very good territory. It’s heavily Republican.” And because the Republican portion of the state is in the relatively inexpensive Salisbury, Md., media market, it's very affordable to campaign in.

Delaware's primary, held April 24, comes after a three-week pause, with no elections between then and Tuesday's showdown in Wisconsin, and on the same day as Connecticut (28 delegates), New York (95), Pennsylvania (72), and Rhode Island (19). With just 17 delegates at stake and his three rivals focused on the delegate-rich states in play and yet to make a single visit to the Blue Hen state, Gingrich is hoping Delawareans will respond to his personal attentions—and that a win here would force the national press corps that's written off Gingrich (he lost the last remaining print reporters embedded with his campaign last month) to once again give the speaker his due.

“It is a state that you can meet a lot of voters in a short amount of time,” said Rick Tyler, the longtime Gingrich aide who now heads Winning Our Future, a super PAC backing him. “When [voters] actually get to meet the candidates, it’s a much greater influence” than negative television ads, he said, pointing to Rick Santorum’s win in Iowa as an example of the virtues of retail politicking in smaller states. And while 122,000 Republicans turned out for the Iowa caucuses, turnout in the Delaware primary will likely be half that. And the state's compact size— it has just three counties, and is less than 5 percent as large as Iowa—allows an underfunded candidate like Gingrich to cover it easily. And since Gingrich is concentrating on the southern part of the state, he has an even smaller area to campaign in.

The former House speaker’s schedule for the next few days is almost entirely focused on Delaware. His wife Callista will be in the state Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and Gingrich himself is holding three campaign events in southern Delaware on Thursday. He has already been campaigning in and around the state over the past weeks, trying to woo voters there while also aiming to win over delegates on Maryland's eastern shore, a move Walker called "a kind of twofer."

Gingrich’s rivals view his Delaware push with the wry detachment reserved for candidates whose poll numbers are too low to warrant rougher treatment. John Brabender, chief strategist for the Santorum campaign, said “Newt is delegate hunting, and what Newt understands is every delegate he gets gives him opportunities down the road. Newt is very committed to seeing that there’s a conservative nominee, [and] realizes there [are] two in the race. Regardless of whether [delegates] go to him or Santorum, [he’s] making sure that they are going to a conservative candidate.” Brabender said his campaign was focused on the primary the same day in Pennsylvania, optimistically saying that “whoever wins Pennsylvania becomes the nominee.” (That's certainly true if Romney wins in Santorum's home state.)

Santorum and Gingrich are still joined as "anti-Romneys" in the sense that any delegates either of them claim make it that much harder for Romney to rack up the 1,144 delegates he needs to capture the nomination before the GOP convention. But Gingrich, who has only taken first place in his home state of Georgia since his surprise win in South Carolina briefly shot him to the top of the national polls, needs three more wins for his delegate-hunting strategy to remain at all viable. Not only do Gingrich's hopes of emerging as the party's pick at a brokered convention depend on claiming as many delegates as possible to stay relevant, but RNC rules require a candidate to have a plurality of delegates in at least five states to have his name on the first ballot at the convention. Delaware, with its small electorate and winner-take-all prize, is his remaining best chance to get a third state behind him.

Gingrich is hoping that it's not the size of the state, but how he uses it, that matters.