It is probably stretching things to declare that the former House speaker has made a comeback after the collapse of his debt-ridden campaign in June, when most of his top political operatives abandoned him.
But as the size of the Chick-fil-A throng suggested, there are signs that Republicans are giving Gingrich another look. Fundraising has picked up after his strong debate performances and amid the continued frostiness that many activist Republicans feel toward presumed front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
One by one, hot new alternatives to Romney have arisen and stumbled: first Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain has shot up in the polls, though his vulnerabilities become more apparent with every news cycle. So more than a few who have been turning out lately to see Gingrich are wondering: Could he be the next would-be Cinderella to try on the not-Romney slippers?
Former Greenville County Council member Gale Crawford, who maintains an e-mail address book of 1,300, said she hears from at least 100 tea party activists and GOP stalwarts a day. “They feel the same way,” she said. “Most of those people like Herman Cain, and Newt is moving up. He’s moving up.”
Crawford was among about 20 people who paid $500 a plate to join Gingrich at a downtown luncheon, shortly before his Chick-fil-A appearance. “I would dearly love for Newt to be run in either slot” on the GOP ticket, she said.
All in all, Gingrich’s trajectory of the past few months brings to mind a childhood game that he devised when he was growing up in Hummelstown, Pa. A buddy would pretend to beat him up, leaving him in a heap on the curb. Then, when a passing motorist would stop to lend assistance, young Newt would spring up and yell, “Surprise!”
But while Gingrich’s political career has seen a series of resurrections and reinventions, his recent setback shook him more deeply than any had before.
After giving autographs, shaking hands and posing for photos with everyone who wanted one, Gingrich sat in a Chick-fil-A booth and recalled how awful it got last summer.
“We went through the two worst months in my career. I would say June and July were the hardest months, worse than the two defeats [in his first House races] in ’74 and ’76,” Gingrich said, spooning his way through a bowl of soft-serve ice cream.