PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The Republican women who sat down with Newt Gingrich at a breakfast in this seacoast town Thursday morning had a question for him: If anyone brings up the Tiffany thing, can we boo them?
They never got their chance. Over the course of two days, the people who came to see the former House speaker, some 600 in all, were largely uninterested in half-a-million-dollar tabs for expensive jewelry or the back-and-forth over the Ryan plan.
And Gingrich, who heads to South Carolina on Friday, where he will address a brewing labor fight in that state, declared at almost every stop that his campaign is alive and well, and that he is a sort of “comeback kid” who had proved the elite Washington media wrong.
“Look what happened to me over the last 10 days: We had every Washington analyst, except one, explain that my campaign was dead,” he said. “I just relaxed, they were in a feeding frenzy, they had to get it out of their system, and I knew they would eventually calm down. The trick is, we need to stay focused on talking about what matters for America.”
Gingrich, 67, had plenty of red meat for the crowds, who packed a house party, a country club and a diner, labeling Obama as a food-stamp president who is propped up by the elite media.
One voter asked whether Gingrich could be less negative in his discussions of Obama and his agenda, and Gingrich said he could not figure out a way to do that.
“I would like to be more positive about the president, because my dad was a career soldier, I grew up in a family that the commander in chief is the commander in chief,” he said. “I find it very hard to not find myself, again and again, on the opposite side. Frankly, I’m much farther away from Obama than I ever was from Clinton.”
On Thursday, Gingrich gave a speech on health care, vowing to repeal health-care legislation in the first 30 days if elected, and use the hours after he is inaugurated to sign executive orders that would eliminate czars and funding for overseas abortions. On immigration, he pledged a secure border by 2014.
At his first event in this primary-obsessed state, he took only a few questions, but by the second event, hosted by a tea party favorite, he had hit his stride and seemed to relish the opportunity to answer a question from a reporter about his Tiffany bill.
Will your charge account at Tiffany sink your campaign, a Reuters reporter asked.
“I want you all to notice, finally, the citizens having failed to raise the most important question of the day. I was asked about a charge account at Tiffany’s,” he said, standing before a crowd of about 200 people, who didn’t boo but laughed at his sarcasm. “Now, I’m grateful that somebody here finally had the courage to go to one of the hot-button issues that will change America’s future.”
But, he said in an interview later, the swirl of negative media attention during his first week as a presidential candidate taught him a valuable lesson about how he respond in the future.
“I’ve got to be more careful and make certain that it’s virtually impossible to misunderstand what I’m saying. I’ve got to be less academic and more explicit,” he said at the Conway Diner. “And we’ve got to get faster at responding to stories that are just totally false. We are still a half-step behind doing that. We eventually burn them out, but it takes longer than it should.”
A question remains as to whether Gingrich can turn the kind of grass-roots support he has seen in New Hampshire into wider support elsewhere. Over the next week, Gingrich will work on two major speeches to be delivered in June, one on foreign policy and another on the Federal Reserve.
He acknowledged some political fallout from his rough rollout.
“This will be, in the short run, a challenge to raise money, because when you get that much negative publicity, it slows it down,” he said. “But at the grass roots, there is a real hunger for somebody who can explain — not just give slogans — but can explain an alternative to Obama.”