Fading Newt Gingrich playing for one more comeback

Playing for time in the GOP presidential race, Newt Gingrich is employing a variety of tactics in an effort to revive a candidacy that seems headed for a sustained period of bad news.

For example, Gingrich — who has twice rescued himself from the edge of elimination in the 2012 campaign — continues to promote the idea that another rebound is just over the horizon. But that horizon seems to be receding.

“I run a campaign which twice now has made me the front-runner and I suspect will again by the Texas primary or so,”  he said over the weekend. “I think in a few more weeks I will be ahead in Gallup again.”

But Gallup’s national survey shows him headed in the other direction. Five-day tracking numbers posted Monday afternoon showed Gingrich trailing Romney by double digits. He is now closer to third-place Rick Santorum than he is to the lead.

And the Texas primary is more than a few weeks away. It’s a full two months off, nearly twice the elapsed time of a primary season that has already pared down the GOP field and made Romney a prohibitive favorite to become the nominee.

Although it’s true that Romney won’t have a mathematical lock on the nomination until sometime in April, at the earliest, a “few more weeks” for Gingrich turnaround seems unrealistic, given a calendar that favors Romney and offers few good opportunities for Gingrich. 

“I'm actually pretty happy with where we are, and I think the contrast between Gov. Romney and me is going to get wider and wider and clearer and clearer over the next few weeks,” said Gingrich, who has fewer than half as many delegates as Romney, who is likely to pad that advantage on Feb. 28, when Michigan and Arizona hold the next big primaries.

Even before losing Florida last week, Gingrich was pointing toward Super Tuesday --  four weeks and a day from today -- as the one to watch.  Primaries in Georgia, a state he once represented in Congress, Tennessee and Oklahoma offer him a chance to pick up delegates.  Multiple primaries across the country make it much more difficult for Romney to squelch Gingrich in every one. But Romney will be heavily favored to prevail overall on Super Tuesday. (Virginia, where Gingrich lives, won’t give him any delegates because he failed to qualify for the ballot.)

In other words, Gingrich is likely to be slipping further behind Romney in the delegate count when the Super Tuesday vote is in. That helps explain why he seems increasingly interested in moving the goal posts, by shifting the focus to the first Tuesday in April.

Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia seem likely to favor Romney. But Texas, home state of Gov. Rick Perry, who has endorsed Gingrich, is also one of those states voting on April 3. “From that point forward,” a confident-sounding Gingrich told reporters late Saturday in Nevada, he would “see if we cannot actually win the nomination.”

He repeated the idea on “Meet the Press” the next morning. “By the time Texas is over, we'll be very, very competitive in the delegate count, and I think that the key, from my standpoint, is to make this a big choice campaign,” he said.  But the odds -- and the delegate math -- strongly suggest otherwise.

Another way losing candidates try to outrun a downward spiral is to throw up chaff in hopes of confusing the issue.

One of Gingrich’s arguments is that Romney is winning by using negative campaign tactics and his big financial advantage. The problem with that kind of campaign, Gingrich maintains, is that it will suppress needed voter turnout in the fall election.

“Every county I carried in Florida had an increased turnout,” he said Saturday night.  “Every county Romney carried in Florida had a decreased turnout. Now that should sober every Republican in the country. If the only way Romney wins is suppressing turnout, how is he going to, how's he going to do that in the fall? If the only way he wins is outspending somebody 5 to 1, how is that going to apply against Obama, who's going to outspend him?”

But the Miami Herald, after examining Gingrich’s claim, found that his facts didn’t hold up. Reporters for the paper found that turnout fell in Gingrich counties (by an average of 5.8%).  And though turnout was also down in the Romney counties (by an average of 9.6%), Republican voters were more energized in the Romney counties, where overall turnout (as a percentage of registered voters) was higher than in the Gingrich counties.

Gingrich, a onetime college history teacher, has also thrown out facts from past campaigns to bolster his argument that all is not lost.

“Reagan lost five straight primaries before he began winning in 1976,” he pointed out the other night.

But Reagan was a much stronger challenger to President Ford that year than Gingrich has proved to be against Romney. Reagan lost by 1 percentage point in New Hampshire, where Gingrich finished 30 points behind; Reagan lost Florida by 6 percentage points, and Gingrich lost by 15. (And Reagan ultimately failed to gain the nomination that year).

Gingrich has vowed to carry his fight against Mitt Romney all the way to the Republican National Convention in Florida in August. 

“We will go to Tampa,” he said, and he’s right. Thousands of Republicans, including Gingrich, will attend. But for Gingrich to participate in a meaningful way is an increasingly tall order. After what almost certainly will be a rough February, he’ll need to win big on Super Tuesday. If he doesn’t, his candidacy might stumble on beyond that point, like a barnyard chicken with its head cut off, but the race will in effect be at an end.


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