At dusk on Wednesday, as Newt Gingrich and his Secret Service detail arrived at Georgetown University, a pair of shaggy-haired undergraduates tossed a Frisbee on Healy lawn. The two young men paid little attention to the silver-haired former speaker. I’m not even sure they recognized him. A few steps from Gingrich’s caravan, four female students, in slate-gray Hoya T-shirts and blue shorts, jogged past the entourage. They didn’t gawk; they didn’t even glance.
To the 400 attendees inside Gaston Hall, a mix of College Republicans and faculty members, Gingrich was a star, an approaching legend. The excitement inside the third-floor auditorium was palpable. But to most students, the visit was a footnote. On a muggy night, the lacrosse matches across the campus were the bigger draw.
Once upstairs, Gingrich did not seem to mind the muted atmosphere. In fact, he seemed to be relieved to be back in Washington and back in a collegiate setting — lecturing from a podium to an attentive crowd instead of drifting, as he has for months, through a blur of small-town events in primary states where he faces innumerable challenges.
Gingrich’s remarks were, for the most part, warmly received by the conservative audience. He spoke about the importance of God in American life and he praised Abraham Lincoln. He touted the latest developments in brain science and he highlighted the importance of innovation. He didn’t mention Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum.
Sitting in row one, calmly watching the scene, was the youthful Vince Haley, Gingrich’s longtime strategist, co-author, and confidant. Haley, 45, was tapped to be Gingrich’s campaign manager earlier this week following the departure of top aide Michael Krull. Off to the side, leaning against the wall, was Joe DeSantis, Gingrich’s media adviser.
According to Haley and DeSantis, the Georgetown event was an example of how things will proceed in the near future. With little money, a shrunken staff, and dwindling poll numbers, Gingrich will spread his message on college campuses, on cable news, and on the phone. He’ll reach out to delegates and give policy speeches. His campaign, in every sense, will be rescaled.
Haley understands why many politicos interpret Gingrich’s maneuvers as a retreat. But it’s not, he insists: It’s an adjustment as Gingrich plots a path to the GOP convention in Tampa, where the former Georgia congressman still very much wants to play a role. Haley’s job, as he sees it, is to keep the campaign in survival mode until then — out of debt, in the news, and prepared for a floor debate.
“We clearly have an opportunity to win,” Haley says. “Now, it’s clear from the delegate math that we have an almost impossible hurdle. But we also believe that Romney will have a very difficult time reaching the necessary 1,144 delegates he needs to be the nominee. If the Republican National Committee follows its rules regarding Florida and Arizona, Romney will probably not be able to get there by June.”
As Romney and Santorum sling arrows at each other, “Newt will continue to make his case to the public,” Haley says. In the coming days, he will unveil more “policy solutions,” hoping to catch fire on a variety of issues, much in the way his “Newt = $2.50 gas” has generated enthusiasm from conservatives and scorn from the White House. Haley predicts that delegates will be paying close attention even if the Beltway press largely ignores Gingrich’s agenda.