WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Newt Gingrich, February could be the longest month.
Despite Tuesday’s resounding defeat in Florida, the former speaker of the House of Representatives has vowed to battle front-runner Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race until the party formally nominates a candidate in August.
“We’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months,” he said on Tuesday as supporters waved signs that read “46 States to Go.”
First, Gingrich will have to survive the next few weeks.
He faces long odds in Nevada’s February 4 caucuses and several other state nominating contests that follow in the race to determine who will oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
In a candidacy that has been buoyed by televised debates, Gingrich won’t face Romney on stage again until February 22. Fundraising could dry up due to a perceived loss of momentum.
And as the playing field expands from coast to coast, Gingrich’s seat-of-the-pants operation will have to compete with a Romney campaign that has been methodically building a nationwide organization since 2008.
“The Gingrich campaign faces a Bataan Death March for the next three weeks, with little opportunity to raise money, change the dynamic, break Romney’s momentum or exert real pressure,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said.
After declaring his campaign dead twice so far, pundits have learned never to count Gingrich out.
Much of Gingrich’s staff deserted him last June as he vacationed in Greece with his wife shortly after announcing his candidacy. He climbed to front-runner status in December, then finished in fourth place in the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in January.
Gingrich sprang back to life in South Carolina, capturing the support of Tea Party conservatives who viewed Romney’s moderate record as governor of Massachusetts with suspicion.
“Newt has proven that he can live off the land for extended periods of time,” said Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide who is staying neutral in the Republican nomination battle.
Despite Tuesday’s loss, Gingrich strategists believe he can still win the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, particularly if he can do well in conservative southern states that vote on March 6.
Gingrich expects to do well in his home state of Georgia on “Super Tuesday,” as well as other conservative states like Tennessee and Oklahoma that vote that day. Alabama and Mississippi, which vote a week later, could give him additional victories in the South.
Romney’s victory in Florida gives him 71 delegates to Gingrich’s 23. Because most states now award delegates on a proportional basis, even California’s June primary could be relevant.
It will be mathematically impossible for Romney, or any candidate, to win the delegates needed to secure the nomination before late March, according to Chris Krueger, an analyst with Guggenheim Washington Research Group.
The Gingrich campaign says it raised $5 million in January and $10 million in the three months before that - enough, they argue, to compete with the better-funded Romney campaign.
New rules that allow unlimited spending by outside groups - so-called Super PACs - mean that much of the television advertising bill can be footed by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose family has contributed at least $10 million so far to Gingrich’s effort.
The campaign will also use Internet resources and television interviews to stay in the public eye.
That raises the specter of Gingrich trying to campaign for months after Romney has effectively sewn up the nomination, a prospect that worries party elders.
“There’s no really reason to think he can’t continue sustaining his campaign off of earned media and some financial resources almost indefinitely,” said Fergus Cullen, a former head of the New Hampshire Republican Party who has not endorsed Gingrich or Romney.
If Gingrich continues his losing streak, pressure will mount for him to drop out as senior figures try to unite the party before November’s showdown with Obama. Crucial allies like Adelson could reassess their support.
“At some point somebody’s gotta say, ‘Why are we going out of our way to make an enemy of the next president of the United States?’” Galen said.
The battle between the two could get increasingly heated in the weeks to come.
Gingrich, who earned millions in Washington after a 20-year career in Congress, has sought to harness grassroots anger at Washington, Wall Street and other “elites” in the Republican Party, and in recent days has gone from calling Romney a moderate to a liberal.
Romney and high-profile surrogates have in turn painted Gingrich as unreliable and erratic.
Republican voters have taken notice. According to a Pew Research Center poll released on Monday, 52 percent rate their party’s presidential field as fair or poor, up from 44 percent in early January. At this time in the 2008 election, 68 percent of Republican voters rated the field as excellent or good.
Some senior figures that a vitriolic battle could divide the party.
“A lot of that negativity sure didn’t paint the party and the cause in attractive colors. I think that hurts the electorate, it diminishes the energy that’s needed to head into the general,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, said on Fox News.
Others say it will only toughen up the eventual nominee.
“I suspect that this bruising primary will strengthen Romney, as he has now indeed earned the nomination, rather than winning by other candidates losing. These attacks on Romney were always going to come, whether they be from Gingrich now or Obama later,” Mackowiak said.
Editing by Doina Chiacu