In June, after his top advisers bolted, Newt Gingrich was supposed to be finished. Four months later, after a series of sharp debates, his poll numbers are climbing and his coffers are stuffed. Behind the scenes, his aides aim to capitalize on the resurrection.
“There is plenty of room,” says R. C. Hammond, the campaign spokesman. He bets that by early January, when New Hampshire and Iowa are blanketed by snow, Gingrich’s “tortoise” campaign will inch ahead.
That optimism is backed up by cash, Hammond says. In the past week, the campaign has raised more money — nearly $200,000 — than it collected in July, the month the campaign nearly collapsed. The capital infusion has enabled Gingrich to hire early-state staffers, such as tea-party leader Andrew Hemingway in New Hampshire, and produce a slew of Web videos.
It is also erasing, albeit slowly, what has been a looming problem: the campaign’s debts. According to federal election filings, Gingrich reported over $1 million in debts through September 30, a figure nearly identical to when his initial senior team departed.
In presidential politics, such a hole can knock you out of the race; debt was, for example, a major factor in Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal. Gingrich’s campaign has endured, Hammond says, by subsisting on the approximately $800,000 it has raised since July.
Gingrich’s inner circle, once a high-profile coterie of wonks and politicos dubbed “Newt Inc.,” was pared down. In recent months, only a handful of loyalists have remained on payroll, and they often work from home to save on expenses.
At one point, when prospects were dim, staffers shared a couple of Verizon wireless cards for their laptops, in order to avoid paying for office-wide Internet service.
Gingrich, for his part, has not flown on chartered aircraft since May, taking commercial flights to Des Moines and Manchester from his home in northern Virginia. He often travels with a lone staffer, if that. On the ground, grassroots activists are coordinating volunteers.
With about $500,000 in the bank, “we’ve been running lean,” Hammond says, and with much of the race centered on the debates, “that’s been the focus.”
Indeed, with dwindling funds, the campaign never attempted to engineer any grand comeback strategy, even when things were bleak and closing shop remained a distinct possibility. The immediate goal was surviving.
During a normal week, Gingrich would appear at events — maybe a speech in Iowa and another in South Carolina — but he would never spend weeks on the trail, burning cash. The little things that lead to strong debates — reviewing news items and making sure Gingrich had a Diet Coke before he went on stage — became priorities for his aides.
Back home in Virginia, Gingrich would, for the most part, keep quiet, in order to save money. Attending the next cattle call or debate was important, but unrelated political events and other potential commitments were axed from the schedule. His press load was lightened, with few interviews granted beyond Fox News and friendly radio outlets in primary states or the occasional Sunday-morning talk program.
When not on the phone with Amy Pass, his top money raiser, about fresh leads, he’d map his updated “Contract with America,” call close friends, and eye how “Lean Six Sigma,” a waste-reduction program popular with corporations, could be implemented within the federal government. He’d read and write history, taking notes about potential stories to weave into his public remarks or debate rhetoric.
Gingrich’s approach, his aides say, was to keep the entire campaign on a low simmer, slowly building support but never scrambling to join the news cycle. It took a few weeks for the campaign and candidate to wean themselves off near-daily television interviews. But for Gingrich, long a Beltway fixture with a penchant for pungent one-liners, it was a must. The campaign wanted him to avoid “becoming a reactor to events or competitors,” as one insider puts it, and reestablish his “authority” on policy and governing, not his abilities as a political pundit.
In the eyes of many Republicans, Gingrich had become a damaged candidate — respected, to be sure, but unworthy of support. He was, according to conventional wisdom, an aging veteran on the sidelines, nothing more. That had to be corrected. So running against the press, which largely dismissed his candidacy, became a key theme.
At first, Gingrich lashed out due to exasperation on the trail, irked by the media’s focus on his much-discussed Tiffany’s account and the summer meltdown. But things began to shift in Ames in mid-August, after Gingrich criticized Fox News moderator Chris Wallace for playing “Mickey Mouse games” and asking “gotcha questions” about his campaign.
As they heard the Iowa crowd roar at the comeuppance, Gingrich’s top advisers —Hammond, Pass, communications director Joe DeSantis, his wife Callista, campaign manager Michael Krull — sensed opportunity. If the former House speaker could speak up, with gusto, about the media’s horse-race obsession, perhaps he could fire up on-the-fence Republicans who agreed with the critique.
“Appealing on an emotional level was important,” says one source. “He knew that he needed to address the electability question, noting that with his record, to not consider him viable was an absurd media-driven narrative, not the GOP consensus.”
On September 7, at the GOP debate in California, Gingrich followed through, blasting the moderators, including Politico’s John Harris, for attempting to divide the field. “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other,” Gingrich replied when pressed to differentiate between the health-care positions of Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. “You would like to puff this up into some giant thing. The fact is, every person up here understands Obamacare is a disaster.”
Days later, at a CNN debate, Gingrich hammered the point again, wagging his finger at the moderators for making so much of the spat between Perry and Romney on Social Security: “I’m not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day.”
The response to the slams, coupled with some sharp policy jabs, was immediate, campaign sources say, and to this day remains the campaign’s sustenance — it fuels interest, garners headlines, and generates donations. The buzz, of course, is far from enough for Gingrich to win, or even get close to, the nomination. But in the minds of his advisers, it has kept him on stage — an achievement of its own.
Of course, “we’re never going to have Romney or Perry money,” cautions a source close to Gingrich. “Regardless, I think we’re going to have enough to compete because we’re going to continue to be a much lighter, leaner campaign than the rest. We plan to make up for it with energy.”
Energy, buzz, and debate acclaim may not be enough. Gingrich’s poll numbers remain steady, but unlike Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann, he has not had a moment where he has leaped above the rest. Gingrich insiders shrug this off, saying they’d rather peak late than early.
Still, there has not been a breakout. Only now, after countless debates, are they seeing the beginning of a boomlet. A Cain-like poll gain is hard to imagine. More likely would be a Cain fade, a Perry fade, and an eleventh-hour Gingrich bubble, should he continue to impress and connect with social conservatives in Iowa, in spite of his marital history.
As November nears, the RealClearPolitics average of national GOP polls shows Gingrich within reach of the top tier. He’s holding onto fourth place with 9.2 percent support, only 3 points behind Perry. And two October surveys — one by Public Policy Polling and another by Rasmussen — show him in double digits.
Even with the positive debate response, however, Gingrich’s nose remains pressed to the glass, as he hopes for a final, fleeting shot. In background conversations, top GOP consultants say the rise of Cain and Perry’s bank account may be too much for him to overcome in a compressed time period. “He’s calm, we’re calm,” Hammond says, when pressed on the odds. “Things in all the states remain fluid, even in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney’s support is as thick as a November ice on Lake Winnipesaukee.”
Wait and see — that is the Gingrich mantra. In coming days, his team does not expect him to go negative against Cain, the latest Republican hotshot, but to poke holes, in a friendly manner, in aspects of the 9-9-9 tax plan. When Perry unveils his flat-tax proposal this week, look for Gingrich to trumpet his own flat-tax plan, which he released earlier this year. He’ll also likely challenge Perry to explain specifics, such as his chosen rate.
Meanwhile, finally, the campaign will spend some coin, opening offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. An outpost in Miami will expand, as will the operation in Atlanta, where the campaign’s main call center is housed.
And to the joy of political junkies, Gingrich will join Cain for a one-on-one discussion at a tea-party forum in Texas next month, an event the campaign hopes will spark tea-party voters to reconsider, on a policy basis, their Cain support. The battle for the “non-Romney” slot in the primary, at least in Newt World, has only begun.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.