A Gloomy Gingrich Struggles to Snap His Slide in Florida

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T.J. Kirkpatrick / Corbis

Republican presidential hopeful former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally at the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, Florida, Jan. 26, 2012.

Delray Beach, Florida

“Three nuclear weapons properly placed in Israel is a second Holocaust,” Newt Gingrich tells a room full of Jews. “If you’re going to go to Yad Vashem, if you’re going to say never again,” he adds gravely, peering out at a sea of elderly voters with Obama: Oy Vey buttons and paddles proclaiming their distrust for the liberal media, “then we had better act before it happens, not after.”

Listen to Gingrich’s gloomy tone on the campaign trail, and you may get a sense that the apocalypse is nigh. Four days before the Florida primary, the former Speaker spent an overcast Friday afternoon taking the pro-Israel crowd on a tour of the dangers lurking in the world’s most volatile neighborhood. At a Hispanic leadership conference in Miami, he sounded similar notes of alarm about the U.S.’s policies in Latin America, arguing that the Obama Administration had dallied as Hugo Chavez plots against us and Islamist forces infiltrate the continent. “I’m here to tell you it’s dangerous, and it’s foolish,” Gingrich said of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. “Chavez says openly and publicly that he is our enemy. I’m prepared to accept that.”

The buoyant Gingrich who swept to victory on the strength of forceful rhetoric in South Carolina has vanished in a blink. In his place is a listless figure who speaks softly with a minimum of inflection, barely mustering a smile even when accepting the endorsement of several Hispanic leaders. Reeling in the polls and seemingly punch-drunk after the debate shellacking he suffered at the hands of Mitt Romney on Thursday night, Gingrich’s speeches Friday had all the uplift of a hospital waiting room. He spoke of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, the prospect of the “so-called” Arab Spring deteriorating into an “Arab nightmare,” and a Middle East peace process that is nothing but “a dangerous fraud.” As Romney asks voters to “believe in America,” Gingrich warns them of its destruction.

Part of this is an obligatory pander to benefactor Sheldon Adelson, whom Gingrich must keep from turning off the spigot of super PAC cash sustaining his candidacy. Part of it was the composition of his audience, who greeted his grim prognoses with standing ovations. But part of it may also be that Gingrich knows that he’s trending the wrong way in the pivotal Jan. 31 primary, and there’s little he can do to snap the skid.

Romney has stormed past him in the polls, opening up a nine-point lead in a Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday and earning the endorsement of Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, which is expected to help Romney bring the state’s large Hispanic contingent into the fold. Gingrich did little to change the narrative on Friday, even as his campaign released a new ad that paints Romney as someone who would “mislead, distort and deceive just to win an election.” He didn’t mention Romney by name until prompted by a questioner in Delray Beach who fretted aloud about the prospect of the party nominating a Massachusetts moderate. Gingrich responded by griping about Romney’s duplicity at Thursday night’s debate and noting his vote for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992. “We will just calmly keep telling people who Mitt Romney really is,” Gingrich says.

But Gingrich doesn’t do calm well. His best mode is righteous indignation, playing the partisan warrior who vows to defy political correctness at home and restore American strength abroad. John Vincenti, a homebuilder who lives part-time in nearby Boca Raton and plans to vote for Gingrich, said he was surprised by the Speaker’s flatfooted debate performance on Thursday night. “We need a guy who’s passionate, who can create a little bit of fear in countries like Iran and Syria,” says Vincenti. “He didn’t come on too strong, and he’s got to offer some hope now.”

Suddenly, at the end of a long, bad week, hope is in short supply.