A tough electoral map, a lack of momentum and the scarcity of free media opportunities will likely have Newt Gingrich struggling through February in order to hold on until Super Tuesday in early March.
The former House Speaker left Florida badly bruised and short on cash. The next voting states are mostly favorable territory for rival Mitt Romney, and Gingrich will need to prove to donors as well as voters that he is still a viable candidate.
Former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), a leading Gingrich surrogate, admitted the next few weeks will be rocky for the former Speaker but argued that he will still be viable in a drawn-out battle for delegates, and that the campaign is focused on building infrastructure in southern states that will vote in March.
Gingrich’s resurgence in the GOP field was largely built on his debate performances. But after seven January debates, there is only one scheduled for February. The only other major candidate event is the Conservative Political Action Conference next weekend.
But supporters aren’t worried about the flamboyant former Speaker’s ability to get attention.
“Newt has an infinite ability to make news — we’ve seen that,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s longtime aide who is now running the super-PAC supporting his former boss.
Tyler said his group’s plan was to run a more positive, issues-based campaign.
“We chinked the inevitability armor of Mitt Romney and demonstrated he is a deeply flawed candidate — that job is done,” he said. “From now on we want to remind people of Newt’s actual record.”
And while Gingrich supporters argued momentum doesn’t matter, others disagree.
“It’s tough when you have that long of a time window,” said Scott Howell, a Republican strategist who has not endorsed in the race.
Howell said that his 2008 experience proved that point. He worked for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who faded quickly in national polls after deciding to skip the early states and wait for Florida. “It’s hard to stay relevant when you have a gap like that,” he said.
The primary calendar offers little hope for Gingrich. Four years ago, Romney won six of the eight states that vote between now and March 6. Gingrich failed to get on the ballot in a seventh state, Missouri, and in the eighth, Arizona, Romney came in a strong second place behind home-state Sen. John McCainJohn McCainYes, let’s set politics aside on sage grouse conservation Democrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Obama's right to tackle redistricting, but it won't be easy MORE (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
Gingrich also is very short on cash, and without first-place finishes it is hard to keep donations flowing in. He had $2 million cash on hand at the end of the year and his campaign announced an additional $5 million in January fundraising, but in the month he spent close to $2 million on ads alone, leaving his war chest nearly empty once again.
Smith has been helping Gingrich by meeting with major donors, and said that he’d checked in with some of them after Gingrich lost Florida.
“Our challenge is to raise money, we know that, and to win some primaries on or before Super Tuesday,” Smith said. “There’s no panic with the donors. We got knocked down but we’re back up again and I think the people who believe in Newt and the conservative cause will continue to give. Most of the conservatives took [Romney’s attacks] personally — they felt the establishment attacks were against all conservatives, not just Newt, and that they don’t want a real conservative.”
The former House Speaker will reportedly meet next week with his most important backer, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The casino magnate has already donated $11 million to a super-PAC backing Gingrich. If Gingrich can convince his friend to keep bankrolling the group, slow fundraising won’t matter quite as much. But if Adelson pulls the plug, Gingrich is as good as done.
When asked if Gingrich could do anything to re-energize his campaign, Howell paused.
“He says he’s closer to God now,” Howell said. “I guess he can pray.”