Politics & Policy

Tampa Tempest

Newt Gingrich plots convention chaos.

As he waited for the returns on Tuesday, Newt Gingrich didn’t pay much attention to the soft flicker of Fox News. Instead, as he sat with his family and a few aides in a suite at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala., he was quietly glued to his BlackBerry, thumbing his way through e-mails. He was mostly cheerful, according to those in the room. He reminisced about campaigns past with his daughters. He reviewed his schedule; he bantered with his wife, Callista; he settled on a purple tie. As he sipped a Diet Coke, he casually prepared for his evening speech.

The takeaway from the relative calm was clear: This was just another night in another city. He’d make his extemporaneous remarks, his aides would pack their bags, and within a few hours, they’d board a plane and head to the next battleground.

“He never discussed dropping out, not even a whisper,” says one Gingrich staffer. “It was business as usual.” His youngest daughter, Jackie Cushman, concurs. “It was never tense,” she says. “People forget that he’s been running since 1974. He doesn’t get anxious.”

Downstairs, the scene was more apprehensive. There was a dwindling crowd of Newt enthusiasts. After the networks declared Rick Santorum the winner of both Alabama and Mississippi, Beltway scribes began to write the campaign’s obituary.

While Gingrich took the stage, however, his senior advisers conversed not so much about the defeats, but about Mitt Romney’s festering weakness. “We felt that this thing was moving in ways that no one had predicted, and that somehow we could actually survive,” says a second Gingrich aide.

Days later, that consensus remains. Gingrich is committed to staying in the race until the convention, according to his advisers. He believes that there will be chaos within the party come August, and that — with a bit of luck, a clever floor strategy, and a powerful speech — he could build a winning coalition.

Or at least he could thwart Mitt Romney. “We believe that Romney will be unable to get the delegates needed to secure the nomination,” says Bob Walker, a senior Gingrich adviser. “Once that happens, and the floor opens, we know that we could unite people around our campaign.”

Walker’s take, from what I can discern, is the view of the entire senior team. No one within the tight-knit group at the top, for the moment, has urged Gingrich to quit, or threatened to leave the campaign over strategic differences. But of course, behind that positive outlook is a sober, private acknowledgment, from friends and aides, that Gingrich faces innumerable obstacles.

The former speaker is willing to take his chances. His rationale, it seems, is not so much vengeful, but historical and personal. Gingrich frequently cites as his inspiration Ronald Reagan’s 1976 bid, when the Californian challenged President Gerald Ford. But unlike then, he believes, Republicans will coalesce around an insurgent this summer. He does not expect them to back a moderate, especially one who lacks Ford’s incumbent advantage.

Coupled with Gingrich’s ambition to be a Reagan-like player at the Tampa convention is a lingering sense that this presidential campaign could easily be his last. At 68 years old, he is keen to plod on because, quite simply, he relishes being in the arena — not merely sitting outside of it, talking about politics on cable news, as he did for the past decade.

Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist and a Santorum supporter, says he understands Gingrich’s drive, but he also thinks it’s misguided. “Newt told me in the early 1980s that he was going to run for president,” he says. “He’s had this dream for 35-plus years. He won’t just give it up. He may have to give up, kicking and screaming, but believe me, he won’t give it up easily.”

Over the past few weeks, Viguerie has been calling his influential friends within the conservative movement, asking them to join with him in urging their old friend to respectfully withdraw. But after working the phones, he is resigned to the fact that Gingrich will make this decision alone, and probably at the last possible moment. “I’m not optimistic that he’s going to get out anytime soon,” he says wistfully. “He’s hoping for a deadlocked convention — for lightning to strike.”

Indeed, speaking at Judson University in Illinois on Thursday, Gingrich did not sound like a candidate ready to depart. He pushed back against rumors of his campaign’s demise, telling the press that his campaign is currently “resetting” its “game plan.” He pledged to talk up issues that other contenders rarely mention, such as brain science and space. “I’ve stayed in the race because I think Proverbs is right,” he said. “It warns that without vision, people will perish.”

Watching from afar, many former associates are not surprised by this turn of events. “He’s a huge thinker. He doesn’t just think about what’s around the corner; he thinks one or two elections down the road,” says Dave Carney, a former Gingrich aide who recently worked as chief strategist for Texas governor Rick Perry’s campaign. “It’s obvious that he believes Mitt Romney would be a tinkerer, Obama-light. So to prevent that, he’s willing to adapt, to change his tactics.”

Encouraging supporters to think beyond the much-discussed delegate tally has been easy, says Walker. Getting the press to do the same has been more of a challenge. The goal for the campaign, he says, is to keep Gingrich “thinking big” on the trail, so that come Tampa, he’s the one with a message if Romney’s numbers collapse.

But Gingrich’s broad, “big ideas” message, voiced on the stump and on television, shouldn’t be confused as the last gasp of the campaign. Gingrich’s key political team, led by Martin Baker and Randy Evans, is keeping a close eye on delegates. They want to expose any emerging Romney weakness. They think that Romney has put such an emphasis on the math that he could be vulnerable should he begin to stumble.

In the coming months, Gingrich operatives will also put pressure on Santorum as Pennsylvania’s late-April primary nears, emphasizing that Gingrich won Georgia, and Romney won Michigan, so Santorum must prove that he can win his home state. Reaching out to unbound delegates, those who are not technically required to vote for a specific candidate, is part of the plan, too.

As one Gingrich aide explains, at the political level, it’s about mapping out the convention, bloc by bloc; at the communications level, it’s about framing the stakes; and at the financial level, it’s about sustaining the campaign via small-dollar donors and keeping expenses to a minimum.

By August, after a potentially tumultuous 60-day period between the final primary and the convention, Gingrich’s campaign will be ready to make its case at the convention. “We are charging ahead,” says Leslie Gaines, the campaign’s deputy political director. “We will fight the good fight in Tampa. Remember, this is going to take some time. But in the end, the speaker continues to believe, as do we, that he is the only candidate who can beat President Obama.”

It’s a complicated bet. But they believe that in a contested-convention scenario, and perhaps only then, the usual presidential metrics — money, momentum — will mean little, and it’ll come down to a damaged moderate versus a tested warrior.

“Newt is no shrinking violet,” says Katon Dawson, an adviser to Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich super PAC. “His whole life, nothing has every come easy to him. I’ve known him for many years. He’s having a good time running for president. He’s not going to end this.”

“Remember, these conventions are odd animals,” Dawson says. “If nobody gets this thing on the first ballot, all hell will start breaking loose. If you start to think about who wins debates, and then think about Gingrich getting up there, in that moment, talking about his life and why he should be president of the United States, you can see it.”

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


The Latest