After Florida Loss, Newt Gingrich Finds Himself at a Crossroads

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Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks as his wife Callista looks on during his Florida primary night party Jan. 31, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.

Orlando, Florida

By the time fans began filing into his Election Night soiree in a capacious Orlando ballroom, there were signs Newt Gingrich had yielded to the grim reality awaiting him. Television screens, speeches and placards distributed to supporters broadcast the campaign’s new mantra: 46 STATES TO GO. “It’s not over,” the local Republican Party chairman assured the crowd. When Fox News projected Romney the winner at precisely 8 p.m., spectators at the Gingrich watch party just went on talking, as if nothing had happened. Not that there were many of them. The ballroom was nearly empty save for the cameramen and scribes on hand to rubberneck the crash.

It turned out to be uglier than expected. Gingrich was bracing for a loss, even as he kept up a jam-packed schedule that had him hopscotching around central Florida for photo ops and handshakes Tuesday while Mitt Romney relaxed. Gingrich had his spin at the ready: “It’s clear that conservatives are going to get more votes tonight than Romney,” the Speaker said Tuesday morning during a stop at his campaign headquarters in Lakeland. Not so. With 95% of precincts reporting, Romney’s 47% topped the tally of Gingrich (32%) and Rick Santorum (13%) combined. (Under Gingrich’s scenario, Ron Paul is classified as a libertarian whose devout supporters are unwinnable.)

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And yet, if the blowout loss marks the beginning of the end for the Gingrich campaign, the end may be a long, drawn-out chapter. In an audacious bit of spin, Gingrich told the crowd that Florida did him a favor. “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said. He didn’t say Romney’s name.

Bruised and battered, Gingrich vowed that he won’t cave to pressure to step aside so the GOP can close ranks around Romney. “We did this in part for the elite media,” he said of the “46 states” signs. “I just want to reassure them tonight: we are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.”

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It’s hard to see how this could happen. According to exit poll data, Gingrich lost nearly across the board in Florida. Romney won men and women, Caucasians and Hispanics, wealthy voters and those who make under $50,000, electability (with a whopping 75% to Gingrich’s 8%), self-identified Christians and those say they are satisfied with the current crop of GOP candidates. Gingrich thrived only with the activist base: evangelicals, “very conservative” voters, those who identified abortion as their top issue. It will be hard for Gingrich to improve his favorables across the board while he wallows in the muck with Romney for the next six months.

Florida was a nightmare for Gingrich. He arrived on a wave of momentum and was then out-organized, out-raised and out-thought. Romney’s camp, betting that the vaunted Gingrich ego could not stand being stung by a man he considers his inferior, baited Gingrich into spending a good deal of the week talking up lunar colonies and carping about Romney’s dishonesty. By the end of the week, he was greeting passionate but dwindling crowds with sermons so incendiary they would have made Glenn Beck blush.

(MORE: Outstumped and Outspent, Newt Gingrich Flounders in Florida)

Romney’s win comes with collateral damage. He has bought himself a tenacious enemy. Throughout the week, Gingrich scoffed at reporters who asked about his path after Florida, promising to battle all the way to the convention, tackling each state one-by-one. Gingrich won’t have the money to match Romney in a protracted air war. The debates that fed his campaign are drying up. To engage Romney “Our ability to tell the truth outpaces Romney’s ability to lie,” says Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. As Gingrich himself puts it: “We’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months.”

But it will be a challenge for Gingrich to survive through February. The coming month’s primary calendar is Romney’s wheelhouse: a series of caucus states, where Romney’s superior organization and fatter wallet give him a distinct advantage, and just one televised debate. Gingrich’s campaign announced Tuesday that it had raised $5 million in January and netting $10 million in the fourth quarter of last year. Hammond declined to say how much cash the campaign has on hand, but said Gingrich would spend time campaigning in each contest, including states like Nevada and Michigan, where demographics and personal roots heighten Romney’s advantage. Unlike Florida, the coming contests award delegates proportionally.

Which leaves Gingrich standing at a crossroads in the twilight of a long, accomplished, checkered career. To compete with Romney, Gingrich will have to feast on earned media, particularly if casino magnate Sheldon Adelson decides Gingrich’s Sunshine State drubbing is cause to stop throwing good money after bad. As Gingrich knows well, the best way to get the press to pay attention is to go nuclear, and the only open path forward is to recast himself, implausibly, as a Tea Party insurgent.

For a politician who some suspected entered the presidential race to burnish his image, this carries great personal risk. But the race is personal now. Having come this far, Gingrich signaled he won’t be pushed out easily. In his speech, he even took a veiled dig at the Republican Party elders that have lined up behind Romney, saying he planned to run “a people’s campaign – not a Republican campaign, not an Establishment campaign, not a Wall Street campaign.”

He has forty-six states to prove he can do it. And, potentially, to destroy his hard-earned gains in the process.