Submitting to fiscal and political reality, Newt Gingrich’s campaign announced Wednesday that he would soon end his presidential run, awash in debt and having won only two states.
The former House speaker’s bid was unlike any in recent memory — part presidential campaign, part book-signing and movie-screening junket, and part tour of the nation’s zoos. It repeatedly imploded, but almost as repeatedly resurrected, seemingly by the sheer force of Gingrich’s will. Along the way, he first boosted his standing as a GOP elder statesman after years offstage, but toward the end risked damaging his image with his drawn-out departure.
For months now, Gingrich has had no realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination, but he steadfastly remained in the race, insisting his presence would ensure that the party’s conservative faction would have a voice at the GOP convention in August in Tampa, Fla.
But less than 24 hours after Romney swept five Northeastern primaries, Gingrich conceded that Romney was going to be the party’s standard-bearer and aides said he would suspend his campaign next week. On a phone call with Romney, Gingrich pledged to do all he could to help him defeat President Obama. He also plans to help the GOP retain control of the House and take the Senate.
“We’re going to stay very, very active. We’re working out the details of our transition,” Gingrich told supporters in North Carolina. “I am committed to this party. I am committed to defeating Obama. We will find ways to try to be helpful.”
Though Romney has yet to clinch the 1,144 delegates required to be the official nominee and Ron Paul is still campaigning, the decision by Gingrich as well as moves by former rival Rick Santorum and the Republican National Committee in effect tied up the few remaining loose ends in the GOP primary.
Santorum effectively endorsed Romney during a television interview Tuesday night and plans to meet with Romney on May 4 in a precursor to a formal nod. The RNC began coordinating with Romney’s campaign Wednesday on fundraising and strategy.
“He is our presumptive nominee. That means he is our guy,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said. “It’s beyond an endorsement. It is a complete merger wherein the RNC is putting all of its resources and energy behind Mitt Romney.”
From the beginning, Gingrich’s campaign was tumultuous. Within weeks of entering the race, he was slammed by fellow Republicans for calling GOP Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s Medicare overhaul plan “right-wing social engineering,” and was deserted by nearly all of his advisors after taking a luxury Mediterranean cruise instead of campaigning and fundraising. His campaign schedule was bewildering, with chunks of times devoted to book signings and movie screenings in states that would have little say in choosing the GOP nominee.
Callista Gingrich, the former speaker’s third wife, was a constant presence, standing alongside her husband with her trademark platinum-blond coif bobbing in agreement throughout his speeches. Her interests also drove the campaign. A summer stop in Decorah, Iowa, was planned because she would be in town attending a college band reunion; a fundraising trip to Hawaii coincided with the couple’s 11th anniversary. During her frequent readings of her children’s book, a campaign staffer occasionally donned the large plush costume of main character Ellis the Elephant.
All this led many strategists and political observers to speculate that Gingrich was more interested in building the couple’s brand than running for president. And he certainly endured his share of embarrassments — among them allegations by an ex-wife that he asked for an open marriage, revelations of a six-figure revolving credit at Tiffany and questions about his post-congressional work advising mortgage guarantor Freddie Mac.
But as a flurry of candidates fizzled in the race, voters connected with Gingrich, who was the quintessential happy warrior on the campaign trail. They remembered him fondly for his work in the 1990s, creating the “Contract with America,” engineering the GOP takeover of the House in 1994 and shepherding welfare reform.
They enjoyed his skewering of the news media, though arguably he enjoyed the give-and-take with reporters more than any current GOP candidate. And for an electorate that was focused on nominating a candidate who could go toe-to-toe with Obama in debates, Gingrich repeatedly impressed with his quick-witted and at times sharp-tongued performances in the GOP face-offs.
He was repeatedly called, by supporters and others, “the smartest guy in the room,” a quality that the candidate unabashedly believed. Ever the professor, he would pepper his speeches with historical references and frequently compared himself to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and the Wright brothers.
“I have more substance than any other candidate in modern history,” he said in Iowa in November.
That was during a late upswing in the state that was halted before the Iowa caucuses by a blunt-force attack by Romney. Gingrich took fourth place there, but rebounded strongly to win South Carolina, giving him momentum going into Florida. But there too he was crushed by millions of dollars in attack ads from Romney and his supporters, as well as a lack of a ground game.
Gingrich was also harmed by his own grandiosity; at one point, he pledged to build a colony on the moon by 2020. The Florida loss in effect ended his candidacy, though he did go on to win his home state of Georgia.
By last month, Gingrich’s campaign was $4.3 million in debt, which led the candidate to shed one-third of his staff and reduce his travel schedule.
Gingrich left the race diminished. He entered as a paid commentator on Fox News, a handsomely compensated consultant and a popular draw on the speaking circuit. The contract with Fox is gone, and he is in the midst of a feud with his former employer. As the Atlantic reported, his for-profit consulting firm recently filed for bankruptcy and his nonprofit was shuttered.
Rich Galen, an aide to Gingrich during his time in Congress, said the race illustrated Gingrich’s most and least admirable qualities: He is charismatic, entrepreneurial and a font of ideas but also mercurial and unreliable.
“I knew from the beginning that this was an ill-fated endeavor and it turned out to be,” he said. “It’s too bad; it didn’t have to be this way.”
Gingrich has resurrected himself constantly when facing obstacles throughout his career, and Galen suspects this latest downfall will be no different.
“He’ll do the occasional Sunday show, write books, do book tours, give speeches and be perfectly happy,” he said. “He’ll be fine. People forget.”