He will focus heavily on upcoming contests in Southern states, where he expects his Georgia roots and conservative rhetoric to play well. And he will step up his attacks on his leading rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for being too liberal to take on President Obama in the fall.
After a lackluster showing in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, the big question looming over the Gingrich campaign was whether he would withdraw. The Palazzo sessions provided an emphatic “no.”
Gingrich confirmed the strategy in a meeting with reporters in a nearly empty hotel ballroom here Saturday night after the Nevada results showed him losing to Romney by more than 20 percentage points. The results stood in stark contrast to Gingrich’s confidence that he could go on to win.
“A vast majority of Republicans across the country are going to want an alternative to a Massachusetts moderate who has, in his career, been pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase and who ran third from the bottom in job creation in the four years he was governor,” Gingrich said. “So I suspect this debate will continue for a long time. Our commitment is to find a series of victories which, by the end of the Texas primary, will leave us at parity with Governor Romney. And by that point forward, we’ll see if we can’t actually win the nomination.”
Obstacles on many levels
The Texas primary is scheduled for April 3, and reasons to be skeptical about the new Gingrich strategy are legion.
Gingrich fell from front-runner to a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last month at the hands of a blistering ad campaign by Romney and his allies. There’s every reason to believe that those ads will continue, and that they will continue to be effective.
Gingrich has also struggled to raise money. Except in South Carolina, the campaign has failed to build effective field operations to compete and often comes across as disorganized and unprofessional. In Nevada last week, a spat between state and national operatives erupted into public view when miscommunication botched a planned meeting between Gingrich and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).
Gingrich’s advisers say that those missteps are behind them and that the campaign is entering a more strategic phase, as evidenced by the meeting at the Palazzo. They see in Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina a road map for the future, particularly in Southern states. They say they are more organized, better-funded and getting an earlier start in crucial upcoming states.
“We were outspent by $2 million and we still won by 12 points,” political director Martin Baker said of South Carolina. He said that even with less money than Romney, similar victories are possible. “We just need to spend it smarter and more strategically.”
Alluding to the Florida primary, in which Gingrich took a thumping, Baker said: “And we can’t give Romney a four- or a six-week head start in a place where early and absentee voting is going to be 40-some-odd percent of the vote. . . . That will never happen again.”
But money continues to be an issue for Gingrich. He barely appeared in public during nearly a full week in Las Vegas to concentrate on raising money. The campaign held a lunchtime fundraiser at Mundo restaurant here Thursday and said about 30 donors would come to the private event. But one of the attendees, furniture industry executive Steve Roan, said he’s a conservative who hasn’t made up his mind and was simply invited over from a nearby furniture show to meet the candidate.
In the Palazzo meeting room, a much-expanded team of operatives spent long days poring over spreadsheets and presentation slides detailing how convention delegates are awarded in each of the remaining states. They brainstormed new ways to go after Romney, at one point filling an easel pad with items under the heading: “different ways to call Mitt a liar.”
Gingrich himself came and went. He sat in on a presentation with about two dozen donors that laid out how he can win. The Palazzo, incidentally, is owned by longtime Gingrich backer Sheldon Adelson, who himself made an appearance in the war room. Adelson and his family have given $11 million to an independent committee working on Gingrich’s behalf, but recent reports that Adelson is ready to support Romney if he is the nominee could hinder Gingrich’s effort to build new momentum — and his ability to raise money.
Many Republicans are skeptical that Gingrich can be competitive in so many states compressed into such a short period of time because of his fundraising and organizational disadvantages.
Romney campaign spokesman Andrea Saul said: “He has a right to continue on as a candidate, but the walls will start closing in on him. He’s expecting some wins next month, but that might be hard to pull off after suffering a string of losses. You don’t win by losing.”
The discipline question
One former associate, Rich Galen, said Gingrich has another hurdle entirely: finding the discipline to follow his own plan. “I’ve been in those meetings and I’ve been with the flip charts and I’ve been with the whiteboards, and there’s generally a lot of positive energy that’s generated and a lot of brain power that goes into those things,” Galen said. “The problem is that Newt tends not to follow whatever the plan is for literally more than a few hours before he comes up with a better plan and goes off in a different direction.”
Throughout the campaign, Gingrich has been proud to be his own senior strategist. He regularly proclaims the day his team of consultants quit last spring as one of the best of his campaign. He sends and receives hundreds of BlackBerry messages a day (from 5 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., according to his spokesman, R.C. Hammond). He relies heavily on an old friend in Florida who sends him dozens of news articles each day on topics that Gingrich has requested to inform his message and his strategy. And much of the decision-making happens in his head: Last week in Florida, when asked what Gingrich’s strategy in Nevada would be, Hammond replied, “Newt hasn’t started thinking about Nevada yet.”
But as the Las Vegas war room makes clear, there is now more of a team than Gingrich has let on, with new hires coming on board weekly, including local teams in such upcoming states as Arizona, Ohio and Texas. Baker, the political director, started in mid-December. A TV ad scriptwriter has joined the team, as have two pollsters and several general strategists. At the Palazzo, all of them gathered in a single room for the first time.
Depending on the South
The winning candidate needs 1,144 delegates to claim the nomination. The process by which they’re awarded varies widely. In some states, for instance, delegates are won according to primary results at the congressional district level. Members of Gingrich’s team have studied the convoluted rules, and they believe they can win delegate-rich states but also collect delegates in states where Romney is expected to win but where delegates are awarded proportionally.
A central assumption of the victory plan is a strong showing in Southern states. According to two operatives close to Gingrich who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal discussions, the campaign will focus heavily on Georgia and Tennessee, which vote on Super Tuesday, March 6, and count for 76 and 55 delegates, respectively. They will also target Alabama (47), Mississippi (37), Missouri (52) and Louisiana (43), which vote later in the month. To put those numbers in perspective, consider that Romney won just 50 delegates in Florida’s winner-take-all primary, and he has won a total of 74, compared with Gingrich’s 26.
Gingrich’s Georgia roots give him an advantage over Romney in those states, the advisers say, and the evidence comes not only from his big win in South Carolina but also from the results in Florida, where Gingrich bested Romney in the Panhandle, the most “Southern” and therefore conservative part of the state, they said. Gingrich also has three surrogates who will begin campaigning heavily this month: former senator and presidential contender Fred Thompson of Tennessee, former congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. All three have significant followings among conservative voters, particularly evangelicals, whose votes could be crucial in the South.
Even in states such as Massachusetts and Vermont, which Romney is expected to win, delegates will be awarded proportionally, and Gingrich plans to win delegates, one by one, by using targeted phone lists and targeted mail and focusing on more conservative regions.
A central weakness of Gingrich’s strategy, however, is that even if it all goes like clockwork, he would still essentially be tied with Romney by April — when a series of winner-take-all contests is expected to favor Romney’s superior funding and organization.
A gap in Virginia
One dark spot on that plan is Virginia, which also votes on Super Tuesday, but where Gingrich failed to collect the necessary signatures to get on the ballot. In a state with a deeply conservative Republican electorate, where Gingrich was widely expected to be competitive, it was a huge blow.
“That’s the one state where we frankly messed up in,” Gingrich said at his news conference Saturday. “I’ve been pretty honest about that. We did the wrong thing. We hired the wrong person.”
Gingrich is also focused on early voting — making a stop this week in Ohio, where early voting is set to begin in advance of Super Tuesday.
His strategists are also lobbying two networks — Fox News and ABC — to add debates to the schedule between now and March. At his news conference Saturday, Gingrich said of Romney: “I look forward very much to opportunities to debate him.” It is not lost on the campaign that Gingrich’s success this cycle has depended largely on his strong debate performances, but none are scheduled for most of February, and that is widely viewed as a disadvantage for him.