GREENVILLE, S.C. — In an election season that already has taken more than its share of unlikely turns, few moments have seemed more improbable than the crowd scene Friday afternoon at a Chick-fil-A along a busy suburban thoroughfare here. At least 400 people jammed the restaurant, leaving those in the back straining to get even a glimpse of a man whose presidential candidacy had been left for dead not five months ago.
Against the glassed-in playground stood Newt Gingrich, microphone in hand, promising: “If you’re with me, I think we will win the most decisive election in modern times, and I think we will win it by a shockingly big margin.”
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.
Former campaign insiders were giving the media a picture of him as hopelessly undisciplined and gaffe-prone, more interested in selling his books and screening his movies than in campaigning. American Solutions, the once-vast advocacy organization he had established, went out of business.
His income, largely from the sales of his books and movies, fell to “dramatically smaller than it was — more dramatic than we intended would be the right way to put it,” he said. And with the revelation of Gingrich’s six-figure tabs at Tiffany, even his shopping habits became a national punch line.
“We were being beaten up on every front.We were getting beaten up by the media. We had consultants who were leaving us in debt while attacking us, which I thought was astonishingly unprofessional. We were making transitions in our businesses that turned out to be much harder than I thought they would be,” he said. “And because of the intensity of the news media attacks, it became very hard to raise money.”
He said he hadn’t grasped the full extent of his campaign’s financial precariousness, which still included more than $1 million in debt in its third-quarter filing, because “I was looking at cash on hand and didn’t realize they weren’t paying the bills.”
Even the elements were conspiring against him. The August earthquake that left most of the Washington area unscathed did significant damage to his McLean home; days later, Hurricane Irene flooded his basement.
“It’s very funny, because as bad as it got — pretty miserable — [his wife] Callista would say to me, ‘You just have to wait until the debates.’ She said the gamble in this campaign is that when you get into the debates, people will decide you’re real,” Gingrich said.
His performances did get him noticed — this time, in a good way. “You look at Newt Gingrich and you can’t help but have the reaction, ‘Gosh, what could have been?’ ” self-proclaimed kingmaker Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners after the Sept. 12 debate in Tampa. “Newt was like the adult in the room.”
Gingrich also won points with conservative listeners for bashing the media moderators, while calling for civility among his fellow candidates.
On the debate stage, Gingrich’s professorial bent has played to his advantage.
“Newt Gingrich is a brilliant guy who can save the country and can stand toe to toe with the president,” said George Harris, an anti-tax activist and former finance chairman of the Nevada Republican Party who recently hosted a fundraiser for Gingrich that brought in more than $60,000. “Have you watched these debates? When Newt speaks, people listen.”
The big unknown for Gingrich was how Perry — the late-entry candidate to whom many of his former operatives, including consultant Dave Carney and campaign manager Rob Johnson, had fled — would fare in that same forum. He recalled telling his wife and staff: “If Rick can hit major-league pitching, he’s the nominee. We won’t be able to stop him.”
When Perry struggled in the debates, Gingrich was “stunned,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised by the first debate [in early September]. I was surprised by the inability to adjust and modify and shift.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich is clearly having a good time, even as he continues to campaign on a shoestring.
“I have no conflicts,” he said. “I have no consultant near me trying to get me to be who I’m not.” His stump speech lasts an hour, touching on an eclectic array of subjects that include brain research and “rebalancing” the judicial system.
And having spent decades as one of the leading figures of the conservative movement, he has a well of goodwill and loyalty upon which to draw. Many of today’s Republican activists came of age listening to Gingrich’s motivational tapes and following his rise on C-SPAN in the 1980s and 1990s.
As of Thursday morning, he said, his campaign had raised $1 million in October, which is more than it did in the previous months combined. With the new resources, he expects to open five offices in each of the three earliest states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — within the next two weeks.
The polls, however, are showing only a modest uptick for Gingrich. Real Clear Politics has him averaging about 9 percent nationally, about double where he was in September but still 15 points or more behind Romney or Cain.
In a New York Times-CBS News poll released last week, he reached 10 percent, up three percentage points since mid-September. Cain, meanwhile, made a fivefold leap over that period and led the poll with 25 percent.
Several of those who showed up to hear Gingrich in South Carolina told him they are having a hard time deciding between him and Cain.
“He’s a very likable person,” Gingrich said. But Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, which would establish a national sales tax, suggests that the current leader in the polls “has a great slogan without any substance behind it,” the former speaker added.
Gingrich has also begun framing the argument he will make against Romney, should it come to that. In a not-so-veiled reference to the management skills that the former Massachusetts governor touts as his chief asset, Gingrich has in recent days been asking audiences: “How many of you think what we need is a better manager of the current system, and how many of you think that what we need is fundamental change?”
As he finished off his ice cream, Gingrich predicted that the GOP race would come down to “ ‘Mitt and Newt’ — sounds better than ‘Romney and Gingrich,’ don’t you think?”
“Probably by March, there will be one-on-one debates. It will be fun. He’s very smart,” Gingrich added. “We will give the party a very serious set of choices.”