ROSEMONT, Ill. – There was the candidate. There was his wife. There were the $2.50 gas signs and the buttons and the flyers.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) brought his campaign to the ballroom of a convention center in this Chicago suburb Wednesday afternoon for his first event since his losses to former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in Mississippi and Alabama, two Deep South states that by all rights should have been Gingrich strongholds.
In a half-hour speech, Gingrich hit all his familiar campaign themes, including domestic energy production, entitlement reform and the abolition of “all of the White House czars.” He continued to point the finger at President Obama for the country’s high gas prices.
And while he made no mention of his two Southern losses, the former speaker made a point of noting that his GOP primary rival, Santorum, “didn’t get all of his delegate slots done” in the state of Illinois, which votes next Tuesday.
But there were none of the crowds or the energy that surrounded his campaign appearances of only a few weeks ago.
About 70 supporters showed up to hear an uncharacteristically subdued Gingrich speak. A half-hour before the event started, only one woman was seated in the ballroom; most of the chairs remained stacked at the sides of the hall.
The event was Gingrich’s first of an Illinois swing that comes even as his path ahead in the race remains unclear. Later Wednesday, he is scheduled to address the Northwest Suburban Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in nearby Palatine. On Thursday, he holds five public events and a private meet-and-greet with delegates and volunteers in Carpentersville.
Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are also campaigning in the state this week, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) held a tele-town hall on Wednesday and is to make a campaign stop on Monday, primary eve.
While they were small in number, the few dozen Gingrich backers assembled in the ballroom were die-hard supporters.
Madeline Mainzer, a 61-year-old microbiologist from Niles and the first woman to arrive at the event, said she had been a longtime fan of Gingrich and his writing even before he began running for president.
Steve Citko, an engineer from Oak Park, said Gingrich’s “creative ideas” are what has inspired him in the race.
And Lori Carlson, a 62-year-old retiree who is running to serve as a Gingrich delegate in the 6th Congressional District, said that the former House speaker was part of the reason she got involved in Republican politics in the first place.
All of them said that Gingrich should soldier on until the convention, with the ultimate goal of persuading uncommitted delegates to rally behind his campaign.
Quentin Sepulveda, a 53-year-old alderman from the Chicago suburb of Highwood, said that he is such a strong supporter of the former speaker that he deliberately sent Gingrich a $250 check — a play on his $2.50 gas theme — this morning after his Mississippi and Alabama losses “to make sure that he stays in the race.”
“We want him to stay all the way,” Sepulveda said. “This man was third in line to be president. He’s ready to be president.”
He argued that Gingrich can’t drop out yet because voters in half the states haven’t even had a chance to vote for him.
“Give people in California the right to vote for him,” Sepulveda said.
Jim Norris, a 61-year-old insurance claims adjuster, and his friend Danny, 46, both committeemen from Downers Grove, voted for Romney four years ago. But now they are strongly behind Gingrich, Norris said, adding that they’d “have to lick our wounds” before being ready to back another nominee in the general.
He reasoned that while Romney will probably win the nomination, “we’re hoping Newt can make the point that he’s the one that should be anointed” at the convention.
Citko, the engineer, contended that it’s Romney, not Gingrich or Santorum, who is “the one who really needs to resign” from the race because of his failure to fully energize the Republican Party base so far.
“He can’t mobilize the base,” Citko said of Romney. “He can’t. They’re all rallying around everybody else.”
If Romney gets the nomination, he added, “It’s going to be like with John McCain,” and the former Massachusetts governor will need to tap a running mate like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), who can energize the party faithful.
For his part, Gingrich took only a moment in his speech for a brief jab at Romney, casting himself as the underdog going up against a candidate funded by big business and Wall Street.
“We don’t have anything like the kind of money that Governor Romney has,” Gingrich said. “And I understand he’s going back for two more days of fundraising on Wall Street. Part of this is that Santorum and I have drained his current treasury.”
Romney, by contrast, “can raise money from billionaires,” Gingrich said.