With his competition focused on the chilly Midwest, Newt Gingrich wooed California's Republican faithful Saturday, banking on a Republican contest so chaotic that the most populous state in the country could actually matter when voters go to the polls in June.
"You cannot follow the recent Republican practice of writing off our largest state and imagine that you are going to run an American campaign," the former House speaker told delegates to the state party convention, meeting outside of San Francisco. "There will not be any lockdown before we get to California.... I want you to know as the nominee I will campaign consistently in California."
That was as close as Gingrich came to acknowledging Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum during a withering 48-minute luncheon speech in a packed hotel ballroom. Instead, he trained his sights on President Obama, who he said is "fundamentally dishonest" and "lives in a fantasy world."
Although most of his address was a point-by-point attack on Obama's recent energy speech in Miami, Gingrich also took the president to task for his response to the inadvertent burning of Korans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
Two American military officers were killed in a heavily secured compound by an unknown assailant Saturday, during nearly a week of angry anti-American protests. On Thursday, Obama had personally apologized for the burning of the holy books.
"I find it very offensive as commander in chief that he is apologizing to the Afghans when in fact he should be demanding an apology from [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai," Gingrich said to much applause.
It was part of a litany of Gingrich-Obama contrasts the former Georgia congressman spelled out to cheers Saturday afternoon, a warm reception that belied a recent poll showing him trailing badly in California, No. 4 in the four-man field.
"If you believe the world is dangerous and America should be strong, then Newt Gingrich is your candidate," he said. "If you think the U.S. is inevitably weak and guilty and we should run around the world apologizing and appeasing, then Barack Obama is your candidate."
Do you want $2.50-a-gallon gasoline, an "American energy policy" and "never again bow to a Saudi king"? Then Gingrich is your man, he said. Ditto if you like job creation, paychecks and religious liberty.
And what does a vote for Obama mean? Food stamps, he thundered. Dependency. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with its liberal bias and "religious bigotry." Gas that costs $10 a gallon, an anti-energy energy secretary and "weakness requiring us to depend on foreigners for our energy."
The specter of $10-a-gallon gas was the focus of Gingrich's ire Saturday. He derided Obama's energy speech as "factually false, intellectually incoherent, deeply conflicted on policy and in some places just strange." He called the president "a genuine left-winger," as anti-liberty as he is anti-oil drilling.
Obama "believes in small cars," Gingrich said. "He believes in an anti-American energy policy. He believes in high prices. He believes in government control. The challenge is he's running for reelection. The American people actually want the car and truck they like. The American people are pro-American energy."
While Obama has rejected the controversial Keystone pipeline — which would bisect the United States en route from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico — Gingrich said Saturday that he would authorize the oil pipeline on his first day as president. (Some criticism of the pipeline has come from Republicans in Nebraska, through which it would pass.)
Noting that Obama said there "are no silver bullets" for the high price of gasoline in America, Gingrich said "there is a pen. Big difference.
"A presidential pen could today sign approval of the Keystone pipeline," he said. "That's 700,000 barrels a day. A presidential pen could today sign approval to go back to the Gulf of Mexico. That's about 400,000 barrels a day. A presidential pen could today approve areas of Alaska that we know have oil."
In three signatures, Gingrich said, "you would have 2.3 million barrels a day additional energy in the United States. So I would say, we're not looking for silver bullets. We're looking for presidential leadership."
Although many in the audience were still undecided about their presidential choice, his talk of cheap gas resonated with Judy Thompson of Vacaville, a retired associate warden who worked for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
She drives a 10-year-old car with 200,000 miles on it, gets $400 in Social Security each month and drives 40 miles or more a day volunteering at a charity that houses homeless veterans and working for Assembly candidate Mike Hudson.
"If we could afford to buy new cars, we probably would," said Thompson, who supports Gingrich. "I stay busy, but I might have to cut back because of the cost of gasoline."