Newt Gingrich, whose well-developed sense of sarcasm always goes over well with his Republican supporters, was on a roll Monday evening as he regaled a ballroom of supporters near Knoxville with his account of President Obama's energy plan, and his own vow to reduce gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon, which has evolved into a campaign slogan.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, with Gingrich's presidential campaign potentially in the balance, the former House speaker has been campaigning hard in the South, particularly in his adopted state of Georgia, which he expects to win tomorrow. He knows that Ohio will be a tight race between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is faring well in the South, where evangelical Christian voters appreciate his conservative stance on social issues and his devout Catholicism. But Gingrich said he was heartened by a very slight upward movement in polls in Tennessee.
(Jason Reineke, associate director of the Middle Tennessee State University poll, which found Gingrich garnering only 13% of support among Republicans last week, said evangelical Christians may be flocking to Santorum, who is expected to win Tennessee, but they also like Gingrich for his tale of redemption after a history of adultery and two failed marriages.)
Gingrich was an hour late to his event here, but the group of national reporters who regularly accompany him were even later, as they were flying in on a separate charter plane. Gingrich refused to start his speech until they arrived, so in a reversal of the normal order of things, Gingrich and his wife, Callista, shook hands with supporters before the speech, rather than after.
About 200 supporters filled the airport Hilton hotel ballroom, some holding signs that said, "Newt=$2.50," a shorthand Gingrich urged them to post on their Facebook pages and use as a Twitter hashtag. Reminiscent of former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain's catchy 9-9-9 tax plan, Gingrich tacitly acknowledged the connection.
"We were in Nashville," Gingrich said, "and a man came up to Callista and me and said, 'I want you to tell Herman Cain that I know what Obama's 9-9-9 plan is.' He said, 'Obama's 9-9-9 plan is to make all of us pay $9.99 a gallon.' "
Gingrich also delighted the crowd with a riff on a recent speech the president delivered at the University of Miami. On Feb. 23, Obama said that gasoline and diesel fuel are being developed from algae. "If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we'll be doing all right," Obama said.
Gingrich has been having fun with that ever since.
"Do you all remember in the movie, 'The Graduate,' the moment where Dustin Hoffman is just graduating and he goes to a party welcoming him home and this older gentleman comes over to him and says, 'I have a word that will change your life,' and the word was 'plastics?' And Hoffman spends the rest of the movie, going, 'I don't quite get this?'
"Well, the president the other day in Florida had a word that I thought was a quite magical one. Does anyone here remember his solution?"
Many in the crowd yelled: "Algae!"
"Algae," Gingrich confirmed. "I think this is a 'Saturday Night Live' skit. You don't often get presidential speeches that could literally be delivered on 'Saturday Night Live' and you wouldn't realize it was a fake. But presidents are supposed to, like, run the country today," said Gingrich, a futurist who has been mocked fairly mercilessly on "Saturday Night Live" for his embrace of exploration that could lead to a moon colony.
"Maybe we should, as an experiment, get some algae and go to a gas station, and you know, sort of the 'Barack Solution.' Would you like some algae instead of gasoline? This is the kind of stuff that's Cloud Cuckoo Land," said Gingrich.
Jim Halasi, owner of a Knoxville glass construction company, said he doesn't really care if Gingrich can lower gas to $2.50 a gallon, but likes that he cares about the issue. Halasi is spending $1,500 a month on gas for his company vehicles.
"If he can get gas to $2.50," said Halasi, "my jobs will be more profitable." Halasi, taking advantage of his state's early voting program, cast his ballot Friday for Gingrich.