Republican insiders believe Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign is on its last legs and say the former House Speaker could leave the race after Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.
But they also said the famously unpredictable Gingrich could confound expectations and continue on, despite pleas from some conservatives to step aside and give Rick Santorum a head-to-head matchup with Mitt Romney.
A spokesman for Gingrich acknowledged Wednesday that the former Speaker needs to win both of Tuesday’s primaries in the South — considered Gingrich’s stronghold — to remain a credible candidate.
“Everything between Spartanburg [S.C.] all the way to Texas, those all need to go for Gingrich,” said spokesman J.C. Hammond, according to The Washington Post.
Gingrich won his home state of Georgia on Super Tuesday, the first primary victory for the former Speaker since January’s victory in South Carolina.
But the home-state triumph could not disguise the dismal night for Gingrich, as he failed to place above third in any of the other nine states that held GOP contests.
Supporters of Santorum began for the first time Wednesday to call for Gingrich to get out of the race.
“Based on his electoral performance last night and his out-of-step record, it is time for Newt Gingrich to exit the Republican nominating process,” said Stuart Roy, an adviser for the Red, White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC that backs Santorum.
The Santorum campaign declined to call for Gingrich’s withdrawal but said his support would be welcomed.
Some conservatives have long argued there would be enough votes to defeat Romney if the voters who oppose him rallied around a single candidate. With Santorum’s string of recent victories — and near-wins in Michigan and Ohio — many argue he is poised to give Romney a run for the nomination.
Gingrich shot down that argument Wednesday, saying he would leave the race if he really thought Santorum could win.
“If I thought he was a slam-dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama, I would really consider getting out. I don’t,” Gingrich said on Bill Bennett’s syndicated radio show. “I think each of the three candidates has strengths and weaknesses and that this is a very healthy vetting process.”
The announcement by Gingrich’s campaign that he would not visit Kansas as scheduled on Friday — the state holds caucuses on Saturday — set off another round of speculation as to what the former Speaker’s intentions might be.
Gingrich makes no secret of his distaste for Romney, having suffered a barrage of negative ads from the former Massachusetts governor and his allies in advance of the Iowa caucuses and the Florida primary. Leaving the race could provide a measure of revenge, as it might help Santorum’s chances.
But some believe that he loves the experience of the battlefield too much to abandon it, even if all hope of victory is lost.
“He’s a very smart man, and he knows he’s not going to win the nomination,” said GOP strategist Trey Hardin. “But he is also a very prideful man, driven by ego, some would say, at times. So long as he’s got a microphone and people are willing to listen, he’s going to speak.”
Others argue that precisely because of his lofty self-esteem, Gingrich might find it hard to continue on if he loses in Alabama and Mississippi. Failing in those states would likely amplify calls from conservatives for him to leave the field and give Santorum a clean shot at Romney.
“If Rick Santorum were to win Alabama and Mississippi, I think it becomes a crescendo,” said unaligned GOP strategist Keith Appell. “People will be calling on him to do the right thing for the party, in public. And, in private, people will be telling him: ‘You don’t want to reopen the whole can of worms about being petulant or being diva-like.’ ”
But the lure of battle might be too strong for Gingrich to stop now.
“I think part of it is a love of playing the game, of being center stage,” said Dan Judy, a vice president of GOP consulting firm North Star Opinion Research. “These guys wouldn’t be out there running for president if they didn’t at some level like being in the limelight.”
— Daniel Strauss and Justin Sink contributed to this report.