Campaign Crawlers

Newt’s Last Stand

Gingrich may face doom today in the Deep South.

By 3.13.12

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Monday, Carl Cameron of Fox News was the vehicle by which "sources close to the Gingrich campaign" floated a trial balloon, suggesting that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich might announce Texas Gov. Rick Perry as his running mate "prior to the Republican National Convention at the end of August."

While I haven't bothered to check with my own "sources close to the Gingrich campaign," this suggestion had the distinct aroma of a substance one might find on the plains of Texas in the vicinity of a herd of longhorn cattle. Carl Cameron is too smart of a reporter to believe such a steaming pile of nonsense, and so my guess is that Carl was just sharing it with Fox News viewers in order to give them a glimpse of how truly desperate "sources close to the Gingrich campaign" have become. Republican voters go to the polls in Alabama and Mississippi today, and if Newt loses these two primaries, he's got as much chance of winning the GOP nomination as he has of making Christina Hendricks his next wife.

Frankly, Newt doesn't have much more of a chance even if he wins Alabama and Mississippi, but at least if he wins, his hope of going on to claim the Republican nomination would not be quite so comically implausible. Anyone can see that the Gingrich campaign is now at coffin corner and their increasingly desperate plight is the most likely reason for floating the Perry-for-VP trial balloon. Perry was once the most popular GOP candidate in the South and his endorsement two days before the South Carolina primary gave Gingrich a crucial boost there. Polls in both Mississippi and Alabama indicate nearly a three-way dead heat between Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum, and even a few points might make a crucial difference to Newt's last stand in Dixie. A loss would be disastrous because it would mean "Gingrich can't even claim to have won all of the Southern states that he feels is his natural base," as Ed Morrissey of Hot Air observed.

Out of 25 state primaries and caucuses to date, Gingrich has won exactly two -- South Carolina on Jan. 21 and his home state of Georgia last Tuesday. His prospects have declined catastrophically since early December, when he confidently declared to Jake Tapper of ABC News, "I'm going to be the nominee." That was before Gingrich was buried in a multimillion-dollar avalanche of attack ads from the Romney campaign (and its allied "super PAC") in Iowa. Gingrich finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, but his victory in South Carolina appeared to revive his campaign. That appearance was short-lived, however, as Romney unleashed an altogether unprecedented tsunami of attack ads in Florida, crushing Newt's hopes of continuing his comeback in that state's Jan. 31 primary.

Since then, Gingrich has struggled to maintain the appearance of being a viable contender. On stage in Orlando the night of his Florida defeat, Gingrich was surrounded by supporters holding signs that read "46 states to go." I was in Tampa that night, covering the victory rally where one of Romney's top aides reacted to Gingrich's slogan with a dismissive sneer, "Newt's not even on the ballot in 46 more states." This was true -- Gingrich had failed to qualify for the Virginia and Missouri primaries -- and yet Newt's supporters in Orlando cheered wildly as he gave a speech in which he rattled off a list of acts he would take on his first day in office after being sworn in as president.

If the improbability of Gingrich ever getting to the Oval Office was not readily apparent that Tuesday night in Florida, it should have been clear the following Saturday, when Romney won the Nevada caucuses by a margin of nearly 30 points. This was a brutal humiliation for Gingrich, coming as it did in the home state of the chief donor to his "super PAC," Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The size of the loss was perhaps not even the worst of it. Gingrich's effort in Nevada was such a mismanaged disaster that at one point, the candidate canceled an appearance with the state's popular Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, that his staff had spent days working to arrange. The Nevada debacle was capped by what the Washington Post's Aaron Blake called "a bizarre press conference" in Vegas where, among other things, Gingrich brought up Romney's religion, dismissing Nevada as a "heavily Mormon state."

After Nevada, things went from bad to worse for Newt. On Feb. 7, Rick Santorum celebrated a triple victory in the Missouri primary and the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado. The Romney camp dismissed Santorum's wins as non-binding "beauty contests" that didn't matter to the delegate count, but arguably more significant was the poor showing by Gingrich. Not on the ballot in Missouri, he placed third in Colorado and finished a weak fourth in Minnesota. Gingrich was again fourth in Maine (Feb. 11), then on Feb. 28 finished third in Arizona and fourth in Michigan. With the field winnowed down to four active candidates, there were only so many times a candidate could place fourth before his plausibility as a contender expired, and Newt was already approaching his sell-by date when Super Tuesday arrived on March 6.

By all ordinary logic of politics, Super Tuesday should have been the end of Gingrich's campaign, but 2012 has been a bad year for ordinary political logic. As it happened, of the 10 states that held primaries or caucuses March 6, Georgia had more delegates than any other, and Gingrich concentrated his campaign in what was clearly a do-or-die effort in his home state. He won with 47 percent of the vote in Georgia and thus survived, but at the cost of being wiped out nearly everywhere else. Santorum battled Romney down to the wire in Ohio, and lost by less than a single percentage point, while Gingrich finished a weak third in the Buckeye State with less than 15 percent. In three other states where Santorum finished second to Romney -- Alaska, Idaho, and Massachusetts -- Gingrich placed fourth behind Ron Paul, and Gingrich was also fourth in North Dakota, which Santorum won.

By far the worst Super Tuesday results for Gingrich, however, were Santorum's victories in Oklahoma and Tennessee. By winning there, Santorum exposed Gingrich as vulnerable in the South, which had previously been regarded as "safe" for the former Speaker. The next day, while Santorum traveled to Alabama, the Gingrich campaign suddenly canceled its scheduled events in Kansas to concentrate its resources in the two Deep South states that hold primaries today. That had the effect of ceding Kansas to Santorum, who scored what the New York Times called a "decisive" victory there, with Gingrich a distant third. Santorum has now won eight states to Gingrich's two and, according to the Wall Street Journal, Santorum now has more than twice as many delegates (217) as Gingrich (107).

The delegate math now offers a daunting prospect for any conservative hope of preventing the more moderate Romney from winning the nomination. When the Santorum campaign published a strategy memo arguing against Romney's claim of inevitability, reporters immediately pointed out that the Santorum scenario would require a "brokered convention," denying Romney a first-ballot majority in Tampa. Whether even the staunchest conservatives have the stomach for such an all-out fight remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Gingrich has repeatedly vowed his willingness to go all the way to the convention to stop Romney. Newt may indeed be willing, but if he doesn't win today's two Deep South primaries, he may no longer be able.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.