By the end, Newt Gingrich’s aides almost considered it a mercy that the campaign was over. In the final weeks, the candidate was, literally, coming up lame. Since last summer, Gingrich’s right Achilles’ tendon has been slightly torn, but in order to keep his hectic schedule, he left it untreated. On the trail, Gingrich’s limp became more evident each passing week.
“For a guy who’s not known for being in shape, he’s physically tough,” says Joe DeSantis, one of Gingrich’s senior advisers. “He’ll walk miles. He’s been walking around with this torn tendon. It probably needs surgery, and he’s just walking around with it. Why? Because he won’t take time off. And he still carries his own bags. He won’t let other people help him.”
DeSantis spoke with National Review Online on Tuesday afternoon, in a sparsely furnished corner office on the ninth floor of a nondescript office building in Arlington, Va. Along with the rest of the Gingrich campaign, the 33-year-old Republican operative is packing up. Books, papers, laptops, and files lined the hallway; sullen interns hauled bags of trash. The phones were silent.
But on DeSantis’s desk, below snapshots of his 18-month-old son, one item went untouched: an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. It was given to him by one of the campaign’s consultants months ago, when a Gingrich victory was a long shot but within the realm of possibility. Next to the whiskey is an empty plastic cup. “We were going to crack it open if we won,” he says wistfully.
Gingrich will officially suspend his campaign this afternoon at the Hilton, across the street from this office, surrounded by his family, his friends, and his staff. The event, which was officially announced yesterday, surprises no one. Gingrich may be officially leaving the race today, but he has been out of contention for the Republican presidential nomination for over a month, if not longer.
When former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary in late March, DeSantis acknowledges, it was a devastating loss for the former Georgia congressman, who had touted his strength in the Deep South. Coming mere days after the former Speaker of the House stumbled in Alabama and Mississippi, it was a near knockout. Earlier in the year, Gingrich had won South Carolina and Georgia, but beyond that, he was on a cold streak. The debts were mounting, as were the doubts.
The reason the campaign persisted, DeSantis says, was that Gingrich and his top aides had decided to shift gears — focusing on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, not on competing nationally. In late March, DeSantis recalls, “Newt made a conference call to several of us and said, ‘Look, you need to understand that Mitt Romney is almost certainly going to be the nominee, but I do think there is a shot for an open-convention scenario.’ So,” DeSantis went on, “he said, ‘I think there is a reason to stay in, to take a shot.’ He told us that if he could be an effective voice for conservatism there, it’d be worth it.”
After that conference call with the senior staff, Gingrich followed up with individual calls to his inner circle, from longtime aide and friend Vince Haley to former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Walker, his confidant ever since the pair served together as House Republicans. It was an uncomfortable and emotional period in Newt World, since many loyal staffers were being let go, because of the dwindling funds. But Gingrich, who had seen his campaign collapse only to rise again, wasn’t ready to quit.
“When he called everyone individually, he said, ‘If this isn’t what you signed up for, you can take off,’” DeSantis says. “He said he’d understand completely, that he wouldn’t hold it against anybody.” Gingrich wasn’t simply transitioning from a national campaign to a smaller one — he was mounting a last-gasp personal quest for history, an effort to shake up the convention and the Republican party. At 68 years old, Gingrich knew it was a quixotic strategy, almost fanciful, but after being burned for months for promoting outsized policy ideas, he wanted to leave the race as he entered it: spiting the political establishment.
Gingrich, DeSantis adds, also takes the idea of citizenship very seriously, even though his mention of this theme has garnered little, if any, attention from the national media. The candidate stayed in through April, DeSantis says, partly because of a personal desire to fight on, but also because he liked the idea of being a citizen-candidate, with few dollars, tangling with the Romney machine about policy proposals. If he could do that in Tampa on the convention floor, it would be a way for him to weave his many public-policy solutions into the platform. He wouldn’t be the nominee, and he would be an unlikely pick for vice president, but he would, he hoped, have a say.