As he waited for the returns on Tuesday, Newt Gingrich didn’t pay much attention to the soft flicker of Fox News. Instead, as he sat with his family and a few aides in a suite at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala., he was quietly glued to his BlackBerry, thumbing his way through e-mails. He was mostly cheerful, according to those in the room. He reminisced about campaigns past with his daughters. He reviewed his schedule; he bantered with his wife, Callista; he settled on a purple tie. As he sipped a Diet Coke, he casually prepared for his evening speech.
The takeaway from the relative calm was clear: This was just another night in another city. He’d make his extemporaneous remarks, his aides would pack their bags, and within a few hours, they’d board a plane and head to the next battleground.
“He never discussed dropping out, not even a whisper,” says one Gingrich staffer. “It was business as usual.” His youngest daughter, Jackie Cushman, concurs. “It was never tense,” she says. “People forget that he’s been running since 1974. He doesn’t get anxious.”
Downstairs, the scene was more apprehensive. There was a dwindling crowd of Newt enthusiasts. After the networks declared Rick Santorum the winner of both Alabama and Mississippi, Beltway scribes began to write the campaign’s obituary.
While Gingrich took the stage, however, his senior advisers conversed not so much about the defeats, but about Mitt Romney’s festering weakness. “We felt that this thing was moving in ways that no one had predicted, and that somehow we could actually survive,” says a second Gingrich aide.
Days later, that consensus remains. Gingrich is committed to staying in the race until the convention, according to his advisers. He believes that there will be chaos within the party come August, and that — with a bit of luck, a clever floor strategy, and a powerful speech — he could build a winning coalition.
Or at least he could thwart Mitt Romney. “We believe that Romney will be unable to get the delegates needed to secure the nomination,” says Bob Walker, a senior Gingrich adviser. “Once that happens, and the floor opens, we know that we could unite people around our campaign.”
Walker’s take, from what I can discern, is the view of the entire senior team. No one within the tight-knit group at the top, for the moment, has urged Gingrich to quit, or threatened to leave the campaign over strategic differences. But of course, behind that positive outlook is a sober, private acknowledgment, from friends and aides, that Gingrich faces innumerable obstacles.
The former speaker is willing to take his chances. His rationale, it seems, is not so much vengeful, but historical and personal. Gingrich frequently cites as his inspiration Ronald Reagan’s 1976 bid, when the Californian challenged President Gerald Ford. But unlike then, he believes, Republicans will coalesce around an insurgent this summer. He does not expect them to back a moderate, especially one who lacks Ford’s incumbent advantage.
Coupled with Gingrich’s ambition to be a Reagan-like player at the Tampa convention is a lingering sense that this presidential campaign could easily be his last. At 68 years old, he is keen to plod on because, quite simply, he relishes being in the arena — not merely sitting outside of it, talking about politics on cable news, as he did for the past decade.