By Alexander Burns
For Newt Gingrich, the next great challenge of the 2012 campaign comes from within.
Confronted with the likelihood of a defeat in Tuesday’s Florida primary, Gingrich’s way forward depends as much as anything on his own frame of mind and whether he has the resiliency and determination to keep fighting in a race that’s slipping away. To continue clashing with a resurgent Mitt Romney is a psychological exercise for the former House speaker, on top of a political and tactical dilemma.
In simplest terms, will Gingrich, if he badly loses a bruising Florida slugfest, still have the mettle to answer the bell?
Without a doubt, say those who know him best. Even his most bitter enemies will grant that Gingrich has self-motivational skills – a natural abundance of chutzpah to some – to spare. Laughing into the abyss is not an entirely new experience for a candidate who dragged his campaign along through sheer willpower last summer after his staff and consultants resigned.
Gingrich’s latest reversal of fortune is his most alarming yet, however: a defeat that threatens to erase his momentum from winning South Carolina and push national GOP support strongly toward Romney.
Yet Gingrich has made a career out of upending conventional wisdom and ignoring the establishment view that he should go to the corner and shut up. In public and in private, sources close to Gingrich say he is preparing himself for another plunge into the breach – one more go-around of sewing up his wounds and forging ahead with a campaign that others have abandoned.
During a stop at the Tampa Jet Center on Monday, Gingrich urged supporters to keep in mind that he’s been left for dead before in this campaign – twice, in fact, and wrongly.
“Remember, when Callista and I first announced, it was explained to us in June and July by the establishment that we were dead,” Gingrich said, recalling that he’d also been counted out after a pro-Romney super PAC bombarded him with negative ads in Iowa.
Gingrich continued: “We then came back and beat him in South Carolina decisively.”
Having been repeatedly battered into near-defeat only to roar back into competition, Gingrich may have been inoculated against the disappointment of watching Romney overtake him in the polls in the Sunshine State.
Neither that nor the ever-lengthening list of prominent GOP officeholders supporting Romney has driven Gingrich to the point of personal despair in the last few difficult days on the trail in Florida. In some ways, it may even reinforce Gingrich’s view of himself as a Winston Churchill-like figure – a battle-scarred war horse, viewed as over the hill by his compatriots, riding to save his country at its moment of greatest peril.
The past tumultuous week is the kind of episode Gingrich himself might compare to the London Blitz or Valley Forge – though he hasn’t yet, at least in front of the cameras.
“I would define Newt’s head space as: ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,'” said David Lane, the Christian conservative leader close to Gingrich, quoting Churchill. “They’ve unloaded everything on him now.”
With Romney having dumped all the ordnance available to him on top of Gingrich, Lane said his candidate could come back in a race with fewer candidates dividing the conservative vote.
“It was in Romney’s personal political interest to keep Bachmann, Cain, Newt, Santorum and Perry in the running,” he said. “It’ll be a bad day for Romney when Santorum collapses.”
Jackie Gingrich Cushman, the candidate’s daughter, said her dad has the perspective of someone who has “been through these cycles of lives on the campaign trail.”
“I think what we’ve seen in Florida is – ‘distracted’ is the word that I’ve read. Maybe that’s the right word,” Cushman said, suggesting that Gingrich had hit his stride again in recent days. “He is incredibly tough. And I mean that with warmth in my heart. Not ‘tough’ as in ‘mean.’ He can just stand and take a beating and it doesn’t bother him.”
That toughness hasn’t characterized the entirety of Gingrich’s effort in Florida. He has gone from confidently declaring that a victory here would be tantamount to securing the nomination, to sputtering with frustration on the debate stage, to – on Monday – lumping in Romney with liberal billionaire George Soros and banking giant Goldman Sachs as elements of a corrupt establishment.
Gingrich may have the will to keep fighting, but whether he’s capable of keeping his cool, delivering a consistent message and executing a long-shot plan to overtake Romney is an altogether different matter. Complicating things further, there are no more debates – primetime free-media opportunities Gingrich has often used to reshape the race – until Feb. 22.
Asked to characterize Gingrich’s mental and emotional state at the moment, spokesman R.C. Hammond answered: “Focused and pleasant.”
“He laid out a strategy coming out of Iowa,” Hammond said. “We’ve set a battlefield where we can fight and win, where there’s a two-man race where we can take on Romney.”
Veterans of other insurgent campaigns – cause-driven enterprises helmed by charismatic, larger-than-life candidates – question whether Gingrich has what it takes to persist past the point where most practical political calculus points toward a Romney nomination.
Losing primaries, they say, is only part of it. At some stage, pressure from party leaders will become extreme. Crowds will thin out. Media coverage is likely to turn harshly skeptical or even mocking, if it doesn’t start to disappear altogether.
“It is very difficult to stay in the race when it looks like the fat lady is about to sing or is singing,” said conservative strategist Greg Mueller, who advised upstart, never-say-die presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. “If the conservative movement had rallied behind Gingrich, then there might be a stronger case for Gingrich to carry the conservative banner all the way to Tampa. But the fact is conservatives are splintered on a Gingrich candidacy.”
Should Romney build up a national lead in the double digits, Mueller said, “It will be tough to live off the land as inevitability combined with an eagerness among Republicans to close ranks and start taking it to Obama’s billion-dollar candidacy comes into play.”
At the moment, though, Gingrich isn’t talking like a man who’s contemplating surrender. On the contrary, Gingrich’s stump speech is grander and graver than ever. He is, after all, a candidate who has typically fared better as an edgy, risk-taking underdog than as a cautious, heavily parsed front-runner.
Addressing the Palm Beach County Republican Party on Saturday night, Gingrich grew emotional as he not only vowed to forge on with a spirited campaign but also paraphrased the Declaration of Independence in a pledge to put everything on the line for his cause.
“If you help me next Tuesday and if with your help I become the nominee, and if as nominee we decisively defeat the left at every level – at president, at House, at Senate,” Gingrich said, “then I will give you for as long as I am allowed to serve my life, my fortune and my sacred honor. Together, we’re going to give our grandchildren the country they deserve.”