LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. And Republican Newt Gingrich certainly will hope the disarray that marred his campaign in Nevada last week will not doom his White House bid as he heads toward a possible Super Tuesday last-stand next month.
Stinging losses to Mitt Romney in Florida and Nevada within a week have sucked much of the energy from the former House speaker’s shot at the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.
Gingrich’s upset win in South Carolina on January 21 seems a lifetime ago. The candidate has appeared tired and fed-up at the very time he needs to recharge his campaign to win voters and donors with Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold nominating contests, looming on March 6.
Gingrich, 68, campaigned hard in Florida, possibly to the point of exhaustion, ran chronically late to events and cut short some speeches. In Nevada he appeared sparingly and struggled to keep up with the issues of the day, such as the positive January jobs report, a possible political game-changer that he had not seen five hours after its release.
The negative television ads so successful in siphoning Gingrich support in Florida followed him to Nevada. Romney’s well-funded campaign, and backing from a political action committee run by Romney supporters, will no doubt continue the blitz.
There might be a point beyond which Gingrich, who many observers think entered the presidential race mostly to burnish his reputation as a conservative elder-statesman, can no longer stomach the daily attacks.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said Gingrich had lost control of his emotions at times. “Gingrich should not have let Romney get into his head,” O’Connell said. “That was a killer. When he’s angry, he is his own worst enemy.”
Indeed, Gingrich does best when he displays faux anger - such as in the South Carolina debates, when he twice attacked the moderators with a theatrical flourish - but worse when he actually is angry.
“Gingrich felt very wronged by the Romney campaign. Is it worth staying in the race to prove a point?” said Krystal Ball, a Democratic strategist. “But I would say, if anyone has staying power, it’s Newt Gingrich.”
Ball said the torrent of negative television advertising in Florida - the vast majority directed at Gingrich - was unprecedented.
“It was also quite successful,” she said.
The commercials focused on Gingrich’s ethics violations in Congress and his work as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. They also mocked his claim that he was a close associate of president and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, which has been one of Gingrich’s key campaign themes.
“Among the rank and file, the notion that Newt Gingrich was the conservative leader in Congress in the 1990s was very well established. The Romney commercials really attacked that,” said Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.
“In Congress, Newt has generated a lot of ideas that were important to the Republican Party,” Franklin said. “Romney’s comments cut to Newt’s reputation as a guy who creates big ideas. They cut right to his core.”
In an emotional speech to faith leaders in Las Vegas on Friday night, Gingrich let out some of the hurt. “I’m going to speak from my heart for a minute,” he said. “I am ashamed by the negativity and dishonesty that has marked this campaign.”
But on Saturday, in a defiant news conference after the Nevada vote, Gingrich said he had no choice but to go negative to keep pace with Romney’s “level of ruthlessness and the level of dishonesty.”
Strategists said Gingrich’s biggest challenge is that he never laid the foundation of a campaign in the first place, especially after much of his staff quit in early June.
“The best opening for him between now and Super Tuesday is money, discipline and organization,” O’Connell said.
The seat-of-the-pants organization helped doom Gingrich’s whirlwind campaign in Nevada. A scheduling snafu caused him to miss a meeting with Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s popular first-term governor. Sandoval had earlier endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry for the Republican nomination.
On Friday, Gingrich held a rally at a popular country music bar located in a strip mall. Outside, billboards read “George Strait After-Party, Feb 4” and “God Bless USA.” No Gingrich signs or fliers were in evidence.
Ball said Gingrich’s problems show that a traditional campaign structure still matters - even in the age of campaigning on Facebook and Twitter and posting free ads on YouTube.
“The laws of political gravity still do apply,” she said. “Gingrich wouldn’t have a prayer without (billionaire benefactor) Sheldon Adelson. At some point, the fundraising and the ability to attract more donors is critical.”
Money is an issue with six states holding nominating contests before Super Tuesday. The margin of Gingrich’s losses, especially the 14-point deficit in Florida, could make a continued funding of his efforts a hard sell to donors.
Adelson, who with his wife has put $10 million into the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning our Future, might not be as committed to the man as the millions suggest. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Adelson has relayed assurances to Romney that he would provide even more support to him if he wins the nomination in order to defeat Obama.
But Franklin said the bare-bones nature of Gingrich’s campaign could help him stay in the campaign for months on a relatively small budget and hope for a change in luck.
In recent days, Gingrich has more aggressively twinned Romney and Obama, and is likely to ramp up that tactic as a way to undermine Romney’s perceived electability and to portray himself as the better choice for conservatives.
“Our job is to go to every contest and suck out as many delegates as we can, until the party and the country realize that Mitt Romney will crumble on the stage next to Barack Obama,” said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. “Let’s see that, and at that point we will have the nomination.”
Gingrich is likely to hone that message at the CPAC 2012 conference in Washington, a who’s who of conservative agenda-setters that starts on Thursday. His appearance on Friday could be the speech of his political life.
On Saturday he promised that “the contrast with Governor Romney will get wider and wider and clearer and clearer in the next couple of weeks.”
“I’m actually pretty happy with where we are,” he said.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Mary Milliken