He’s near the bottom of the polls and deep in debt, but Newt Gingrich shows no signs of following Rick Santorum’s lead and gracefully heading for the exits while “graceful” is still an option.
Instead, Gingrich has decided to dig in, campaigning this week in North Carolina and Delaware and mapping out a shoestring strategy to get to the Republican convention in Tampa that seems somewhere between quixotic, egomaniacal, and just plain nuts.
But those who know Gingrich say they’re not surprised by the dogged Georgian’s choice to hunker down for the long haul, especially against a mainstream Republican figure like Mitt Romney. Anything could happen, Gingrich and his backers say, and he’s been wrongly counted out before.
But staying in the race is not without its perils. Establishment Republicans say they’re ready for Gingrich to get out of the race and warn that anything he does to damage the GOP now will haunt him to the last days of his career.
Gingrich himself told reporters in Delaware this week that he’s absolutely not getting out of the race, mostly because he doesn’t have to. “My experience in history is it’s not over until it’s over and that currently it’s very clear that Romney does not today have a majority of the delegates.”
It’s true that Romney does not yet have the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the nomination, but he does have nearly four times Gingrich’s haul, as well as millions of dollars in the bank, compared to Newt’s in-the-red balance sheet. And two recent Rasmussen polls also show that even if Gingrich did somehow secure the nomination, Romney has a far better chance of beating President Obama in November.
One poll at the end of March showed Gingrich losing to President Obama by 10 points in a head-to-head matchup, while a poll the next week showed Romney tying Obama with both men at 45 percent.
But Newt has overcome long political odds before, both in 2011 when his entire staff quit, and in 1998, when he resigned as House speaker, only to reemerge as a popular leader in Washington policy circles and speakers’ circuit.
Craig Shirley, a Gingrich biographer, whose Citizen Newt is forthcoming, says that political fight was built into Gingrich’s DNA then and now. “I think it’s about perseverance,” Shirley says. “This is a guy who has won and lost since the early ’70s and he knows it’s possible to come back from defeat as he has in the past. He’s 68 years old. Why not see it out until Romney gets to 1,144?”
Shirley added Gingrich has very little to lose and could even position himself as a leading conservative voice after the 2012 elections by staying in the race now. “If Romney becomes the nominee, but loses in November, there’s going to be all that soul-searching and handwringing. In that universe, Gingrich would have a major role.”
Gingrich has told supporters that the end game for him is in Tampa, where, if he’s not the nominee, he still wants the chance to influence the Republican platform in a clearly conservative direction. To that end, he is banking on victories in small states like Delaware, which votes later this month and is inexpensive to compete in.
But patience is wearing thin for Gingrich’s Don Quixote moment inside the GOP establishment, which has been skeptical of Gingrich’s motivations from the beginning of the race, but has become infuriated with his inside-the-tent swipes at everything from Paul Ryan’s budget plan to retroactive hits on Freddie Mac and TARP, which Gingrich once supported.
“Get off the field,” a former senior adviser to George W. Bush told me plainly about Gingrich’s next step.
Another former Bush adviser, Tony Fratto, echoed the sentiment. “We’ll be happy, frankly, if he goes away.” Fratto said that Gingrich could still extract some advantages for himself using the remaining primaries to redefine himself among Republicans. “There is still the reclamation project of who Newt Gingrich is that he can take advantage of while hopefully being helpful to the Republican nominee.”
But the potential downside to Gingrich’s ongoing campaign are considerable, according to Fratto, who said Gingrich could easily slide further into debt, and may lack the discipline not to damage the GOP and the Republican nominee in the process.
“If he’s out there being destructive to the brand, he will never be able to recover from that,” Fratto said. “If he’s going to take the role of gadfly and make it all about Newt, then there is no recovery for him.”
In a remarkably frank session in with Delaware Tea Party leaders this week that was captured by Real Clear Politics, Gingrich, playing the role of the aforementioned gadfly, said he has no intention of appeasing the Republican power structure as he forges ahead with his presidential ambitions.
“They know I don’t care about their opinions,” Gingrich said. “I don’t go to their cocktail parties. I don’t go to their Christmas parties. The only press events I go to are interesting dinners when the wife insists on it.”
He went on to eviscerate the current Republican Party as intellectually lazy and more interested in playing golf than working to be true to the Founding Fathers.
“The Republican Party is a managerial party that doesn’t like to fight, doesn’t like to read books,” he said. “This is why the Tea Party was so horrifying. Tea Partiers were actually learning about the Declaration of Independence. They wanted to talk about The Federalist Papers. It was weird. They could be golfing.”
Moments like that have Gingrich’s detractors saying he should get out of the race and openly speculating that his run is now more about selling books and stroking his own ego than about a serious bid for president.
But Craig Shirley says Gingrich would not be the only presidential candidate open to that charge.
“Ego?” Shirley says. “They all have egos.”