TAMPA — To his own goodbye party, the speaker wore black — with a red Republican tie.
“Thank you for being here,” he said to a quiet crowd of about 100 Monday morning in a hotel ballroom. “I’m Newt Gingrich.”
A few months ago, Gingrich was used to bigger crowds. There was one screaming for him in South Carolina, when the former House speaker beat Mitt Romney in the Republican primary. “People power, with the right ideas, beats big money!” he said then.
Gingrich won just one more state.
But one of the few virtues of modern conventions is that they allow beaten candidates — in exchange for pledges of loyalty to the victor — to stage-manage their own political deaths.
Ron Paul got his chance Sunday. Rick Santorum goes Tuesday. For Gingrich, the ritual began Monday, with “Newt University.” With his presidential moment officially ending, Gingrich took another trash-talking, Lincoln-quoting, moon-mentioning turn as his party’s idea man.
“We tell the truth less effectively than Democrats lie,” he said as class came to order. This was the first of four Newt U sessions designed to fix that, by teaching GOP delegates to tell the truth as well as Gingrich himself. “We want a fact-based campaign,” he said.
This is the moment for goodbyes: early in the convention, before the spotlight shifts to Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
It is a chance for losers not to be remembered as losers, to reintroduce the best side of themselves. The classic of the genre might be Edward M. Kennedy’s appearance at the 1980 Democratic convention after losing the nominating contest to President Jimmy Carter. The Massachusetts senator gave a speech that overshadowed Carter, pledging: “The dream shall never die!”
This year, it is Gingrich’s turn: Newt U marks his symbolic transition back to what he was, a hero from the party’s history with little power in its present. Gingrich, 69, has led seminar-like classes at past conventions during a career that has seen two startling successes and two self-destructions.
Gingrich led the “revolution” that took the House in 1994. Then he left the House in 1999 after alienating colleagues and fighting ethics allegations. In this campaign, Gingrich won South Carolina in spite of his disorganized, cash-poor campaign. Then he lost the rest of the primary states — in part because of his disorganized, cash-poor campaign.
On Monday, the former history professor began Newt U with a name-dropping talk that was 180 proof Gingrich. In a 16-minute speech, he cited Margaret Thatcher, Alexis de Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
Gingrich, who famously proposed a moon colony in front of a crowd in Florida, also praised the Apollo space program. He used the buildup to the moon landing as a metaphor for the capability of the American people.
“We innovated every day” back then, Gingrich said. Now, he said, he wanted the same innovative spirit directed at a different goal: “And so, part of the [current] question is, ‘How do we get to a smaller government?’ ”
It was not the most obvious metaphor, since Apollo itself was an enormous government program that cost at least $170 billion in modern dollars.
Gingrich pressed on: He told the crowd that “most of the elite media is not going to help us make this case” for smaller government.
At the time, there were 10 television cameras capturing his presentation.
After this introduction, Gingrich surrendered the stage to guest speakers. For much of the next two hours, he was a spectator at his own university.
That was not the way Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) handled it.
The day before, Paul — the popular, 77-year-old libertarian who is at the end of his third and last presidential run — had convened thousands of supporters in a basketball stadium in Tampa. He spoke for about an hour, dissecting the history of the 20th century and describing where others had gone wrong.
But the site of Paul’s speech — 10 miles away from the convention itself — emphasized that Paul himself was still far from influencing that history.
Not every defeated candidate is saying goodbye. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is giving a number of speeches this week. Former pizza executive Herman Cain is enjoying another moment of attention in Tampa. On Monday, he asked if he could cut to the front of the security line at the convention’s media center. Late for a radio show, Cain said.
On Tuesday, another ex-contender will get his moment at the convention’s podium. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was Romney’s closest contender for the nomination. He has since become a loyal surrogate for Romney.
But generosity to the defeated has its limits: Santorum’s talk will be between 7 and 8 p.m. The network TV broadcasts begin at 10 p.m.
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, will speak Thursday night — also before the networks tune in.
Gingrich’s classes will be available online at newtuniversity.com: The Republican party is paying KAPx, an arm of Kaplan Inc., to run the site. (Kaplan is part of The Washington Post Co.)
Some of the laments voiced during Gingrich’s own event served to deflate his self-image. Many of the speakers praised Gingrich — for things he’d done in the past. In the present, it was clear the party had a new chief idea man.
“Has anybody heard Paul Ryan talk about the American idea?” said James Kemp, son of the late conservative guru Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). “He gets it.”
Aides had promised a detailed summation from Gingrich, but when the time came, the head professor had no more time. He had an appointment with delegates from Ohio.
“I hope you found this useful,” Gingrich said. “I’ve got to run.”
Gingrich slipped out the back, through a curtain, as people from the audience chased after him in vain.
Staff researcher Alice Crites and staff reporters Karen Tumulty and Liz Spayd contributed to this report.