JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was approaching 11 p.m. at the Hyatt hotel bar here on Sunday, and reporters covering Newt Gingrich’s campaign were enjoying a few drinks when a familiar figure approached.
Gingrich put a hand on the shoulders of two women at the table and imparted a big scoop. “There’s a new poll coming out,” he announced. “I’m within five points of Romney. . . . I’ve got all the momentum.”
It’s hard to know what the most pitiful part was: That a presidential candidate was whiling away the night at a hotel bar (it was his second visit to the journalists’ table that evening)? That he felt the need to do his own spinning? That the survey he was spinning was a “robo-poll” done by machines? Or that the pollster who did it used to work for Gingrich?
In fact, real polls were showing the opposite — a new Quinnipiac poll had Mitt Romney with a 14-point lead over Gingrich in Florida. If such a drubbing occurs in the state’s primary on Tuesday, that would, for all intents and purposes, end Gingrich’s campaign. But Gingrich is going down in his own style, leaving fabrications, insults and scorched earth all the way from Miami to Pensacola.
During the course of the day Monday, he erroneously announced a “brand new poll” showing the race tied, falsely implied that Nancy Reagan had endorsed him as the sole heir to her husband’s movement, and canceled a news conference because, his spokesman said, he was “mad at the press.”
He made religion-baiting references to his Mormon opponent at two stops, accusing Romney of discriminating against Catholics and Jews. “I think we need to have a government that respects our religions,” Gingrich declared at a rally in Tampa. “I’m really tired of being lectured about respecting every other religion on the planet. I want them to respect our religions.”
So the United States now has official religions?
That dog whistle had barely finished echoing through the airport hangar when Gingrich sounded another, referencing a liberal Jewish-born billionaire: “Send a signal to George Soros, to Goldman Sachs, to the New York and Washington establishment,” he thundered. “Money power can’t buy people power.”
But Gingrich is losing people power. As crowds thin and poll numbers drop, the press corps following him has begun to dissolve. As he took off Monday on his campaign plane — a 737 supposedly used by the Miami Heat and operated by Moby Dick Airways — he was without a media contingent. After reporters refused to shell out more than $2,000 apiece over the weekend to fly on the Gingrich plane for a single event, the campaign punished them by canceling press charters.
To try to keep up with Gingrich, a few reporters chartered their own turbo-prop, while 20 others missed half of the candidate’s events while chasing him across Florida by bus. Rick Santorum’s campaign, trying to exploit the rift, sent an e-mail to reporters aboard the Gingrich bus: “If we could start a charter service tomorrow, would you or others be interested?” it asked. “I know the travel has been rough on y’all.”
Actually, keeping up with Gingrich’s utterances is the roughest part. On Monday, he told his supporters: “We just got word of a brand new poll from about an hour ago that says we have a tie!” The crowd erupted in a chant of “Newt! Newt! Newt!”
When reporters asked for details, Gingrich’s spokesman distributed a “Dixie Strategies” poll — conducted early last week and published on Friday.
No wonder Gingrich’s campaign has had enough of the meddling media. His team had called a news conference for Monday afternoon in Tampa, and many of the heavies in the business — Fox’s Carl Cameron, ABC’s Terry Moran, CBS’s John Dickerson — were on hand, but minutes before the event, the campaign canceled it.
When defiant reporters tried to cluster around the candidate, things got rough. A man put his hands on the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward to stop him from getting closer. “I’m law enforcement. Do you want to go to jail?” the man said.
But no tempers were hotter than Gingrich’s. President Obama is “increasingly dictatorial” and has a “war against religion.” Romney is a “liberal” and “out of touch with honesty” and he “refused to allow [Catholics] the right of conscience” and “cut off Kosher meals for Jewish Medicaid recipients.”
Gingrich, his midsection bumping against the lectern as he delivered his broadsides without notes, promised there would be more earth to burn. He said there shouldn’t be “any doubt” that he will remain in the race after Florida. “The establishment in both parties is terrified,” he boasted.
Well, at least the Republicans are.