Last Saturday, in a dimly lit ballroom on the Las Vegas strip, Newt Gingrich stood before a row of television cameras, exhausted and showing it.
Hours earlier, Gingrich had lost the Nevada caucuses to Mitt Romney by nearly 30 points. His poor showing was the culmination of a long and disappointing week, coming four days after Romney swept Florida’s primary. Gingrich, who had won South Carolina’s primary in late January, was suddenly deflated, sparring with skeptical Beltway reporters about whether his campaign could survive.
Up on the dais, his hands clenching the lectern, Gingrich could barely muster a smile. “All of you can relax,” he said. “I’m not going to withdraw. I’m actually pretty happy where we are.” He pledged to “go to Tampa,” to compete until the convention. But he sounded grim, grumbling about rumors of his imminent departure, calling them fictitious Boston spin — the “greatest fantasy” of Romney strategists.
Media reports of the late-night presser were sprinkled with related adjectives. Gingrich, depending on the scribe or cable-news pundit, was “defiant,” “snarling,” “nervy,” “passionate,” or “quixotic.” On Fox News, columnist Charles Krauthammer cringed. “When he speaks about America, he’s great,” Krauthammer said. “When he speaks about himself, he’s awful.” Around the GOP-consultant circuit, there was a similar consensus. The lack of a cheering crowd, the meandering invective — it soured many who saw the show. Gingrich’s campaign, it seemed, was breaking down.
Nevertheless, nearly a week later, following discouraging finishes in Tuesday’s caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, Gingrich continues to fight. The aggressive, combative tone of that Las Vegas press conference lingers. In Washington, however, Republican officials and conservative activists are dubious about Gingrich’s perseverance. His ambitions and intentions seem murky. With Romney leading the delegate count and Rick Santorum surging, Gingrich’s chances of securing the nomination are debatable. His chances of causing trouble? High.
Yet among Gingrich’s close aides, the suggestion that the former speaker is staying in the race out of spite is met with laughs, or, more frequently, disdain. To those who know him best, Gingrich is a man whose ambition is fueled by history, both personal and political. Romney irritates him, to be sure, but it is grander aspirations that inspire him, friends say. His dogged push to remain in contention, they assure me, is not mean-spirited moxie but the grit of a 68-year-old with big dreams.
Jackie Cushman, Gingrich’s daughter, was at the Venetian Hotel that Saturday night in Las Vegas, standing in the back by the Klieg lights. Gingrich’s defense of his candidacy, and, more broadly, his place in the national debate, was a reminder of what has always animated him, she says. She recalls that when she was growing up, Gingrich often told his daughters about his stepfather, a career infantry officer. When he was younger they lived abroad, and on weekends they would often visit historic sites, including the site of the Battle of Verdun in France.