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.
#ad#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.
#page#It won’t be easy, Haley acknowledges, but he refuses to accept the conventional wisdom that Gingrich is finished. “In an environment where Newt is seen as the leading voice of the conservative movement, as the only candidate who wants to offer a true alternative to the president, he could rise,” Haley says.
According to Haley, Gingrich is convinced that the primary remains unsettled, even as Romney piles up victories. “If we get to a situation after the California primary, and Romney is not within spitting distance, everything changes,” he says.
#ad#“I see this as a Moneyball scenario,” Haley says, comparing the tumultuous, drawn-out primary to the Michael Lewis best-seller about managing a major-league baseball team. “Over the course of a 162-game season, you do the stats and you can predict a likely outcome. But when the postseason comes, it’s a smaller sample size,” he says.
“If we can get to a delegate convention, it will be a different set of rules,” Haley says. “Romney’s money won’t be an issue. He won’t be able to spend money to put attack ads on the arena’s video screens.”
In the meantime, Gingrich’s advisers will work with the speaker to fine-tune his message. With television networks moving their embedded reporters off of the Gingrich beat, a clearer, sharper focus will be necessary in order to sustain national interest, DeSantis says.
“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve reassessed what has worked and what hasn’t,” DeSantis tells me as he watches Gingrich regale the college crowd. “We’re getting back to ‘core Gingrich,’ which is futurism in a proper context. Before, he’d bring up space, but it lacked a vision statement about 21st-century conservatism being based on technology and innovation. That’s one of the things that hurt us.”
Moving forward, “his strength is in the issues,” says Peter Ferrara, a former Reagan aide and a senior Gingrich policy adviser. “As people look around and realize that they don’t want to end up with Romney, he will begin to gain some notice. He’s the one who has been a conservative leader for over three decades. That will carry weight.”
Competing with Romney and Santorum without much of a campaign apparatus, however, will be difficult, to say the least. On Wednesday afternoon, before speaking at Georgetown, Gingrich huddled with his staff in his Washington office, holding a series of emotional meetings with a dozen trusted aides he could simply no longer afford to pay.
“It was a rough moment for him,” says one top Gingrich source. “He understands that things have to change in order for him to stay in the race. He told them that if he finds a way to come back, he’ll quickly rehire them. But everybody knows that’s an outside possibility.”
As for other senior advisers — beyond Haley, DeSantis, press secretary R. C. Hammond, and a few personal aides — the campaign will transition them off of the payroll and into volunteer positions by the end of the month. Gingrich reportedly hasn’t had any major strategic disagreements with his staff. “It’s just been disappointment,” says one Gingrich ally. “We all see the numbers.”
#page#So does Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who has been the principal funder of Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich super PAC. Speaking with the Jewish Journal, he was downbeat about Gingrich’s chances. “It appears as though he’s at the end of his line,” Adelson said. “Mathematically, he can’t get anywhere near the numbers, and it’s unlikely that there will be a brokered convention.”
Nevertheless, many within Newt World are not interested in asking the 68-year-old Georgian to leave the race. “Clearly he’s not raising the money he was a few months ago,” says former congressman Bob Livingston, a top Gingrich adviser. “But he has a real desire to hang in there and make it to Tampa. Newt’s a player, he has delegates, and he wants to have a spot at the convention. If he can find a way there, he’ll be immediately viable.”
#ad#There are rumors that a departure could occur, regardless of Gingrich’s fiery public commitments. He met with Romney in a Louisiana hotel last week, according to the Washington Times, and discussed the state of the race. But he denies that he attempted to broker a deal with the front-runner. “There is no agreement of any kind, and I plan to go all the way to Tampa,” he told the newspaper.
“I take him at his word,” says Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich spokesman and the current director of Winning Our Future. “It makes sense for him to downsize the campaign and focus on delegates. If he marches to Tampa, we’ll march there, too. We still see potential in states, such as Texas, which are home to many conservatives.”
Tyler maintains that those who wonder why his old boss is carrying on do not understand how Gingrich believes this election will be understood, years from now, by historians. There has been a flurry of stories questioning whether Gingrich is tarnishing his “legacy” — but to the contrary, Tyler says, Gingrich is confident that his campaign will enhance his long-term reputation as an outside thinker.
“Teddy Roosevelt’s reputation was not hurt by the fact that he started a third party after he was president,” Tyler says. “Newt wouldn’t do that. But he is not afraid to push Romney, and to try to keep voters excited about issues and ideas. The biggest misconception is that this is personal for him. It’s not. That’s never been his style. It’s about finding a way to develop conservative solutions for a new century, even if the press and other politicians don’t take that seriously.”
“The greatest frustration I’ve had since leaving the speakership is the denseness of Washington in accepting new ideas,” Gingrich told the Georgetown crowd. “We are surrounded by a news media that is cynical, and by consultants who are cynical, and by lobbyists who are cynical.” They think big ideas are “silly,” he complained.
“I haven’t done a very good job as a candidate because it is so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country,” he said wistfully near the end of his talk. “The entrenched structure of the system is so hostile to it.” The students nodded; some clapped. Gingrich didn’t pause. He didn’t smile. He wasn’t looking for a cheer. For what it’s worth, he was trying to make a point.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.