BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Newt Gingrich was explaining to a Tea Party forum here Thursday night why he is best qualified to be President Obama’s Republican opponent. Citing his involvement in the 1980 and 1988 presidential campaigns and his leadership of the 1994 “Contract With America” campaign that elected a GOP congressional majority, Gingrich said, “I helped design campaigns that won huge elections.”
Unfortunately for Newt, he has failed to design a campaign that can win him the Republican nomination, and he is expected to lose Saturday’s Louisiana primary. The most recent polls (including the latest from Rasmussen Reports) show the former Speaker of the House in third place here, trailing far behind Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Another defeat in the Deep South, coming after last week’s losses in Mississippi and Alabama, will likely bring his presidential bid to an effective end. And then the blame game will begin.
Through the 2012 campaign, Newt Gingrich has been consistent in one thing: He has always blamed others for his defeats. His finger-pointing was plausible in Iowa and Florida, where Gingrich rightly excoriated Romney for the multimillion-dollar attack ad campaigns the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign (and the pro-Romney “super PAC,” Restore Our Future) unleashed against him. Can anyone recall a precedent for such an overwhelming volume of negative ads in a GOP presidential primary campaign? If the Romney campaign wished to prove that negative advertising works, especially when one candidate can afford to vastly out-spend his opponents, they have succeeded. But by making conservative Republicans the targets of such attack-ad blitzes, Team Mitt has embittered many opponents of the moderate whom pundits and GOP leaders are now calling the party’s “inevitable” nominee.
This is a legitimate grievance, and one that Gingrich addressed in his Thursday speech to the Tea Party forum at Louisiana State University’s Dodson Auditorium. “One of the things that most worries me, frankly, about the Romney campaign, if you watched Illinois — yes, he won with 46 percent of the vote,” Gingrich said. “It was the lowest turnout in 70 years. This constant negative campaigning is dangerous, because if we suppress Republican enthusiasm, we’re not going to have the turnout. We’ve got to have our base turn out.… The conservative movement has to be excited, in order for us to win. We tried a moderate in ’96. They lost badly. We tried a moderate in 2008. They lost badly. You cannot try to win this election by getting in the middle. You’ve got to offer a clear and vivid choice.”
This is true, and both Gingrich and Santorum have spent the past two days mocking the GOP frontrunner as the “Etch-a-Sketch” candidate, employing a memorably mistaken metaphor that Romney adviser Eric Ferhnstrom used Wednesday on CNN to suggest that, as the Republican nominee, the candidate could “reset” the conservative positions he has taken during the long primary season.
Romney’s wrongs, however, cannot explain the failures of Gingrich’s campaign, and Gingrich evidently does not want to address his own role in his defeats. After losing the Nevada caucuses Feb. 4, Newt began blame-shifting and excuse-making, holding a memorably petulant Las Vegas press conference (the Washington Post called it “bizarre”) where he attacked Romney and dismissed Nevada as a “heavily Mormon state.” Whatever validity there was in making mention of Romney’s religion, the fact was that Gingrich’s Nevada campaign was disastrously mismanaged — one of his supporters in the state described it to me as a “clusterf**k” — and Newt never admitted any responsibility for that disaster.
The implausibility of Gingrich’s blame game became apparent three days after his Nevada meltdown, when Santorum won caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, and a primary in Missouri where Gingrich had failed to make the ballot. What prevented Gingrich — who in 2011 raised more money than Santorum by a factor of 6-to-1– from mounting the kind of low-budget effort that enabled Santorum to score a triple victory Feb. 7? Why was Gingrich’s campaign in Minnesota so weak that he did not merely lose the caucus, but placed fourth behind Santorum, Romney, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul? Newt’s Minnesota embarrassment was the first in a series of fourth-place finishes that continued from Maine on Feb. 11 to Wyoming on March 10, reflecting his campaign’s failure to organize even a semblance of an organized effort in many states. While Gingrich was able to win his home state of Georgia on March 6, his efforts elsewhere on “Super Tuesday” were so feeble that he lost Tennessee to Santorum, an unexpected Southern defeat that was an ominous precursor to his March 13 losses in Alabama and Mississippi.
The fact is that, despite having raised more than $20 million for his campaign, Newt is now broke — the latest Federal Election Commission report showed Gingrich’s campaign running in the red. He has won 135 delegates, according to Associated Press projections, and has vowed to go “all the way to Tampa,” but if he loses in Louisiana on Saturday, it’s impossible to imagine how he can continue actively campaigning even another week, much less until the GOP convention in August.
Contemplating the “internals” in Rasmussen’s Louisiana poll, Ed Morrissey of the conservative Hot Air blog said Newt is unlikely to win any delegates here, a result that “would end whatever credibility he has left as a candidate even in a delegate-gathering sense.” Morrissey said the poll “suggests no big surprises Saturday… barring a last-minute gaffe by Santorum.” Santorum did indeed commit such a gaffe Thursday, saying that nominating an “Etch-a-Sketch” Republican like Romney might be even worse for the GOP than Obama’s re-election. Even such a gaffe by Santorum — who appears set to win Louisiana handily — is unlikely to save Gingrich from another Deep South defeat.
It is perhaps too much to hope that Gingrich, a former history professor, will have the grace to say of his Louisiana loss, as one Southerner famously said in defeat, “It is all my fault.”