Mitt Romney’s campaign strategists are not the only ones likening Newt Gingrich to the horror movie antagonist who keeps coming back from the dead. The ex-Speaker has taken up the metaphor himself. But unlike his rival’s operatives, he is not joking about it.
With polls showing Mr. Romney heading toward a decisive win in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida, Mr. Gingrich is vowing to take his fight against the pro-Romney party establishment all the way to the GOP convention in August – and win it in the end.
In almost any other election year, such musings would be quickly dismissed as an idle threat. But with the introduction of new primary rules divvying up delegates from most states on a proportional basis, and the possibility of unlimited spending by outside groups supporting Mr. Gingrich, the scrappy former Speaker of the House of Representatives may not be talking through his hat.
“In June and July, it was explained to us by the establishment that we were dead,” Mr. Gingrich told supporters at a Monday rally at a Tampa airplane hangar. “We then came back and by December … we were 12 points ahead nationally.”
After a barrage of negative ads paid for by groups supporting Mr. Romney sapped Mr. Gingrich’s momentum – leading to fourth-place finishes in this month’s votes in Iowa and New Hampshire – “we then came back from that and beat him in South Carolina.”
Mr. Gingrich insisted that, while Mr. Romney might win more state primaries than him, the aversion to the former Massachusetts governor among the grassroots means he cannot amass the magic number of 1,144 delegates before the convention.
That message may not enable Mr. Gingrich to win Florida. It could, however, resonate with supporters elsewhere and help him in future primaries. Gallup’s daily tracking poll on Monday showed the two front-runners tied among GOP voters nationally.
A separate Gallup poll out Monday showed that Mr. Gingrich would lose to Barack Obama by 12 percentage points if he were to face the President in the November general election. The survey showed Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama tied with 48-per-cent support.
Mr. Gingrich rejected the suggestion that Mr. Romney is more electable than him, arguing that the lack of a clear contrast between Mr. Obama and the “Massachusetts moderate” would doom the party’s chances of retaking the White House this year.
“We nominated a moderate in 1996 and he lost. We nominated a moderate in 2008 and he lost,” Mr. Gingrich said at the Monday rally, referring to Bob Dole and John McCain, respectively. “Mitt Romney’s more liberal than either of those candidates.”
In a sign perhaps of his waning momentum in Florida, Mr. Gingrich drew only a few hundred supporters to the rally at the Tampa Jet Center, a precipitous drop from the thousands who turned out at his first events here after his Jan. 21 win in South Carolina.
Those who did wait up to three hours for a glimpse of their habitually late candidate – introduced by his former rival and Tea Party hero Herman Cain, who endorsed Mr. Gingrich on Saturday – nonetheless seemed thrilled at the prospect of a protracted nomination battle.
“It’s high time we had a fight to the finish,” insisted Carol Crumpler, 68, a Tampa area real estate agent. “It’s really important that we don’t chicken out and turn tail and run.”
Constrained by limits on donations by individuals to candidates, Mr. Gingrich has struggled to raise money to fund his own campaign machine. In earlier election cycles, that alone would likely have forced him to drop out of the race by now.
But outside groups known as Super PACs, freed by recent court rulings to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on a candidate’s behalf, have kept Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy alive. If they continue to do so, he could stick it out until the convention.
The more that Republican establishment figures such as Mr. Dole and Mr. McCain warn of the disaster awaiting the party if it nominates Mr. Gingrich, the more they feed into his own campaign narrative as the insurgent who would actually rock the boat.
The threat of a schism in the party is perhaps greater than at any time since 1992, as members of the old guard (from which Mr. Gingrich, a three-decade Washington veteran, has dissociated himself) are challenged by the new populists seeking to replace them.
Among the new guard is Mr. McCain’s 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin, who urged the grassroots to rebel against the party and media elites seeking to “crucify” Mr. Gingrich.
“If for no other reason [than]to rage against the machine, vote for Newt,” she told Fox News on Saturday. “Annoy a liberal. Vote Newt.”
And keep on feeding establishment nightmares.