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.
Cushman says her father developed an early sense of duty, an almost militant commitment to the United States. “He came from a broken home and his stepfather adopted him,” she says. “They moved around a lot, to bases in Kansas, France, Germany. With an infantry officer as his dad, believe me, they were not singing ‘Kumbaya’ in that house. It was about service, and he had a revelation at the Verdun battlefield. Visiting there as a teenager, he felt called to serve.”
Many decades later, Cushman says, Gingrich “truly believes that this presidential campaign, and politics, is his service to his country.” Quietly bowing out, simply to return to private life, would be out of character. “This is not some personal vendetta,” she says. “You volunteer to run for president. No one forces you to do it. This is what he feels he is supposed to be doing. I’m sure the Romney people would love for him to drop out, but it’s not going to happen. He’s got that infantry mentality — he’ll keep trudging ahead.”
For the most part, Gingrich’s advisers agree, telling me that a return to political winter — even if it means more speaking gigs and a hefty television contract — is something Gingrich wants to avoid. “He has lived that life already, doing Fox News and consulting,” says one source. “At his age, he is in no rush to get back to that kind of thing. He sees Romney flailing in Minnesota and sees more than enough reason to think that he can come back and win the nomination. In a head-to-head match against Romney, he thinks he wins. And he does not think that Santorum will be able to withstand the Romney attacks that will come.”
But Gingrich’s team acknowledges that February, with its handful of primaries and one debate, presents a challenge for the campaign. After stumbling in Nevada and Florida, Gingrich’s strategists huddled and decided to largely sit out the month, focusing instead on the slew of primaries set to be held on March 6, collectively known as “Super Tuesday.” It was agreed that Gingrich would campaign in states holding contests this month, but he would not, in his spending or public comments, bet his candidacy on Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, or Michigan. The goal, advisers say, is to rebuild and sustain the campaign as it swirls through the Midwest, prepping for the southern states — Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana — that hold primaries in March.
“This is still very doable,” says J. C. Watts, a former congressman and prominent Gingrich surrogate. “We think we can go into Super Tuesday and the month of March in a strong position. Right now, we’re taking some time to plan for the next three or four months. We’ve got to have a good debate in a couple weeks, get back on our toes, and we’ve got to keep fundraising. We have got to tap into that evangelical, tea-party, small-business base, and build an army. Romney is not creating a groundswell. There’s room for us to reengage.”
Speaking Sunday on the CBS program Face the Nation, Gingrich reiterated that message: “My goal will be over the course of February to show that there is a way to change Washington.” Later, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he also pledged to ratchet up his rhetoric against Romney. “The challenge is to say: Do you really want to go into a fall election with a moderate candidate?” he asked. “The last two times we nominated a moderate — 1996 and 2008 — we lost badly. A conservative candidate can offer a much greater contrast with President Obama.”
Longtime Gingrich watchers cite another factor for his refusal to quit: His place in the history books. They respect that he may find the odds of winning if he remains in the race appealing. But they caution that encouraging poll numbers in certain states are not the only impetus for his obstinacy. Even if he loses, “he becomes the classic insurgent,” says Frank Gregorsky, Gingrich’s former chief of staff, who is writing a history of House Republicans. “More than Eugene McCarthy or Gary Hart, or others like them, he has emerged as a self-righteous guerrilla fighter.”
Indeed, even if he continues to fizzle, Gingrich likely views his candidacy, those close to him surmise, as akin to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 quest, in which the California governor campaigned relentlessly against Gerald Ford all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. “He sees Romney very much as a Ford type, a weak moderate, and he thinks he can exploit that for months,” says one source. “People who think this is about Romney only understand part of his thinking. He thinks Romney is inadequate for the country, but he also thinks that, should Romney win the nomination, he can make it an ideological battle. That appeals to him more than anything, especially more than watching a Romney coronation.”
Gregorsky observes that Gingrich’s career is a story of similar narratives, of caustic tussles and unpredictable resurrections. “He thinks that he embodies the truth and the way. As he struggles, he is in his element. But an ego trip? No, no. That’s thinking too small about what he’s up to. It’s much more than that,” he says. “He’s out in the wilderness, where he is very comfortable. He was there for years, hitting the establishment. For him, it’s a noble thing.”
“Back in the late 1970s, when we first worked together, he had lost two House races,” Gregorsky recalls. “I asked him about what keeps him going, even though he was struggling to support his family on an assistant professor’s salary, even though he kept losing. He told me that the Atlanta media kept him alive. The media is playing the same role for him this year. The problem for him is that his campaign staff is a lot like McCarthy’s — a bunch of kids and some old radicals — and he’s running against a Romney, a savvy chief executive officer. He knows this is a problem. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to leave.”
“Bitterness isn’t the right word,” says Mel Steely, a Gingrich biographer and his former colleague on West Georgia College’s faculty. The old friends still keep in touch, exchanging calls and e-mails every week. “What I sense is frustration,” he says. “Romney has so much money and has hounded him for months. We used to talk, before this primary started, about what a pipe dream it was to stay positive like he did at the beginning. He tried to do that during the debates. He really did. But he got unloaded on. It forced him to change his perspective. What he is doing now is more political than personal.”
“He told me, right at the very beginning, that staying in until the convention was part of the decision,” Steely says. “Dropping out now would help his financial status somewhat, but it would not achieve anything that he set out to do with this campaign. He feels like he has a chance to influence the platform and pick up delegates, to go into a brokered convention where anything can happen. He knows that Republican history is replete with brokered conventions.”
Beyond all the speculation about his path ahead, it is money, Gingrich advisers say, that will play an important, and perhaps decisive, role in the campaign’s future — whether one sees it as an exciting conservative uprising or the unnecessary adventure of a spoiler. Gingrich will need to find a way to fill his coffers, especially if Sheldon Adelson, the famous Nevada investor, declines to infuse Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich “super PAC,” with further millions. Gingrich raised more than $5 million in January, but the campaign spent huge sums on Florida television buys, and is spending more to bulk up its organization.
“This is a campaign with a long sweep to it,” says Bob Walker, a former congressman and Gingrich’s senior adviser. “We knew we’d face some problems in February. At the same time, this is looking like a very difficult month for Mitt Romney. His inevitability is being called into question. From our standpoint, we’re still in a position to carry the conservative mantle in days to come.”
And about the charge that Gingrich is intent on inflicting damage on Romney? “You know, I watched that press conference in Las Vegas and I didn’t get that at all,” he says. “He didn’t go off on a tear on his own; he answered the questions that the press asked. The press seems to be obsessed with asking questions that cause him to look angry. I thought he smiled a lot; he kept his good humor throughout that entire thing. To have it billed differently is more of a press concoction than a reality. This is determination. Newt Gingrich is very tough, and Romney’s people are worried about that. He keeps coming back, and back, and back — especially when you think he’s out of the race.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.