Newt’s Not-Even-Close-to-Last Stand

Gingrich has returned to the South to mount yet another comeback.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich: Will he never surrender?

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—“How many of you are on Facebook?” asks Newt Gingrich.

The crowd, a few hundred people inside a tastefully decorated quadrant of an airline hangar, skews old. There are only a few whoops of excitement, a few shakes of the new Gingrich signs that place the former House speaker’s name on a gas pump.

“Just raise your hand,” says Gingrich.

A few dozen people raise their hands. Success!

“When you get a chance, go to your Facebook page, and put in ‘Newt = $2.50 a gallon.’ That’ll spread, and spread. How many of you are on Twitter? When you get a chance, go to #250gas. That’s a new thing we’ve built on Twitter.”

At every stop today, a charter plane trip through eastern Tennessee on a 45-degree angle, Gingrich has talked up his energy plan. He is as meme-happy as any kid signing up for his first Tumblr. “Newt = $2.50 a gallon” will give him a better Super Tuesday result than all the eggheads predicted. Just look at this hangar: It’s a “great turnout,” just like the turnouts in Knoxville and Kingsport earlier today, just like the Georgia crowds he pulled all last week. Herman Cain, who endorsed Gingrich in Florida—Newt hasn’t won a primary since—gives the crowd an update on his trip to Oklahoma, the supposedly sure-thing Santorum state.

“Newt is surging in Tennessee,” says Cain, who still speaks about twice as loud as anyone else on his stage. “He’s surging in Oklahoma. He’s surging in a lot of places. We can do this!” Cain goes on to argue that Gingrich can win the Republican nomination because he beat Stage 4 cancer, and anything is possible. “Stay inspired!”

I’ve seen losing campaigns before, and this doesn’t feel like one. Technically, Gingrich isn’t really losing. Republican voters will start awarding 437 delegates today. Georgia voters control 72 of those delegates. They will award most of them to Gingrich, who represented some arriviste northwest Atlanta suburbs for 20 years, who campaigned here when Romney and Santorum were in Michigan. Neither of them can take Georgia away from Gingrich. Only Romney even made a recent stop here, serving pancakes at a Sunday event, notable because he avoided saying anything off-putting about his massive wealth.

So the Gingrich voter is staying put. “I want him to stay in until he wins,” says Esther Taj, a retiree trying to get Gingrich’s signature on her campaign sign. “The media’s been rough on him from the beginning. Of course they’re saying he should drop out.”

Matt Brown, a cement salesman, holds out a guitar for Gingrich to sign. He’d brought it to another Gingrich appearance, but forgot the silver Sharpie that really shows up on the black wood. The Sharpie made it with him this time. “It’s like NASCAR,” says Brown. “I’m in it until the race is over. No pit stops. Can you imagine if he wins Tennessee? I was looking at the polls on the way over here. He’s tied.”

PolitiFact would rate this as “true.” On only a few days Gingrich appeared impossibly behind Rick Santorum in Tennessee. One measure of this came on Friday, when State Sen. Stacey Campfield, the youthful-looking sponsor of legislation that would prohibit homosexuality from being described in schools, quit Gingrich’s campaign and signed up with Rick Santorum.

“He’s done a lot of great things, but I just don’t see the scenario where he gets a victory,” explained Campfield in a short Saturday conversation. “The only conservative with momentum is Santorum. Look: If he doesn’t get up to 20 percent in Tennessee, it doesn’t matter what I do. He won’t get delegates here.”

On Monday, two days after Campfield and I spoke, came the WeAskAmerica poll, with a decent sample size (1,023 voters) and a not-bad record of predicting winners. It put Gingrich at 29 percent, tied with Santorum, one point behind Romney. Perhaps the endorsements of Campfield and his ilk had been holding him back. Gingrich trekked to Alcoa, a town around 100 miles northeast of Chattanooga, named for the aluminum smelting company that occupied its skyline. In the ballroom of an airport Hilton, standing behind a “Newt = $2.50 per gallon” sign, Gingrich broke the good poll news.

“We are one point ahead in the latest poll,” he said.

Not to quibble with one point in a poll, but why say Newt was up when he was actually down? “Compare this poll to the Vanderbilt poll that everyone was looking at last week,” said Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond. “We were at negative 12 points or something.”

If the campaign is on the upswing, why quit? Gingrich, who talks delegates and strategy perhaps more than a candidate should, has repeatedly told local and national media that his plan is to do well enough on Super Tuesday to benefit from the inevitable Santorum collapse. “[Santorum] was running fourth in every single primary,” Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday. “Suddenly, he very cleverly went to three states nobody else went to, and he became the media darling and bounced back.” What would stop Gingrich from bouncing back if—oh, I don’t know, if Santorum lost Ohio and the next polls from Alabama and Mississippi, which vote next week, show voters getting bored with their new toy and trudging back to Gingrich?

The candidate is ready for them, waiting with his energy plan. He delivered a 35-minute version of it in Alcoa: It may be the most passionate energy pitch any presidential candidate has delivered without wearing a sweater. (It’s gone somewhat viral. A button seller at the door offers up an item for only $2.50, “one Newt gallon!”) Gingrich has hollowed out the rest of his stump speech, junking the stuff about “challenging Obama to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas model” and replacing it all with a promise to build the Keystone pipeline and “ensure that no American ever again bows to a Saudi king.” He offers to take the president on a “field trip” to North Dakota—a lighthearted version of the old Obama-is-a-schmuck trope, much softer than any teleprompter joke—and explains why Obama’s opposition to drilling is “intellectually fascinating.”

“I give him credit,” said Gingrich. “He said, ‘I want to try to get Americans to leave gasoline and use something else.’ He then described a breakthrough in batteries and research which could, in five, 10, 15 years have a significant impact, except, of course, it uses electricity, much of which is coal-generated, and since the Obama team hates coal, you couldn’t have electricity, because that would be inappropriate, so you’d have expensive electricity for your battery, so if it’s expensive to drive your electric car, you’ll drive a gas car, except Obama’s goal is to make gas expensive so you use electricity!”

Reporters who have watched Gingrich go through nine or 10 campaign “narratives” are a little thrown off. But it makes sense. Gingrich’s futurism hurt him when he campaigned in Florida’s space coast and promised a moon base by 2021. (Stacey Campfield cited this as one of the reasons Gingrich had blown it.) Geeking out about oil prices, though—that’s something people want to hear. Theoretically. Enough people in Georgia, at least. Maybe enough people in Tennessee.

In Chattanooga, Gingrich keeps his speech short, leaving plenty of time to pose for photographs, high-five kids, and sign copies of his books. His wife Callista reaches Matt Brown and his guitar, and grabs a pen to sign it. “I’m a musician, too!” she says.

While Gingrich is signing the guitar, I ask him a little bit about his endgame. He’s constantly asked if he’ll drop out, so I reverse the question. He won the South Carolina primary, which no Republican has won the GOP nomination without. The campaign is headed to Alabama and Mississippi. If it wasn’t for Virginia, where Gingrich was kept off the ballot, Romney might be on track to lose every state between Maryland and Florida. Could the GOP nominate Mitt Romney if he loses the South and Gingrich wins it?

“It won’t happen,” says Gingrich. “He’ll either figure out how to win here, or he won’t be the nominee.” See what he did there? It’s not Newt Gingrich who has to figure out a way to survive the primary. It’s everybody else.