WASHINGTON (Reuters) - His campaign is running low on money, he’s falling behind in voter surveys and he has begun to aim his biting criticism at the leadership of his own political party.
In Republican Newt Gingrich’s roller-coaster presidential campaign, is this a big dip - or the beginning of the end?
Just three weeks after his stunning victory in South Carolina’s primary made him the man of the hour in the state-by-state race for the Republican nomination, Gingrich is struggling to remain relevant.
The former U.S. House of Representatives speaker not only has run behind Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in recent voting contests and polls, he appears to be losing ground in a battle with Santorum to be the anti-Romney candidate some conservatives want so desperately.
The candidates are vying for their party’s nomination to face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 election.
While Romney and Santorum campaign for key contests in Arizona and Michigan on February 28, Gingrich essentially has embarked on a high-risk strategy to try to save his campaign: Forego campaigning in several states to try to raise millions of dollars, then direct that money toward the “Super Tuesday” contests on March 6, when 10 states hold primaries or caucuses.
This week, Gingrich is on a fundraising tour of California, which does not hold its primary until June 5.
“It starts and ends with fundraising,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said, acknowledging that right now, “we don’t have the money you need ... to fend off Romney.”
It’s unclear whether Gingrich will be able to count on any more support from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose family has given nearly $11 million to Winning Our Future, a political action committee that supports Gingrich.
Adelson has been noncommittal on future donations, but has said that he likely would back Romney if the former Massachusetts governor were the Republican nominee.
Gingrich’s campaign said it raised $2 million in Las Vegas earlier this month - before Santorum caught fire with conservative Republicans and won contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last Tuesday. Since then, the Gingrich team has been relatively quiet about how much cash was coming in.
The contests on March 6 could determine whether Gingrich’s campaign will make it to the spring.
Gingrich is focused on a southern strategy for Super Tuesday, figuring that if he can do well in his home state of Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and a couple of other conservative states where he thinks Romney will fare poorly, Gingrich could get back in the game.
Most importantly, Gingrich is counting on winning the April 3 primary in Texas, where 155 delegates to the Republican convention will be at stake, more than any state except California. Gingrich has been endorsed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race last month, and Hammond said Perry and his supporters have been “exceptionally good to us.”
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win the nomination at the party’s convention in August; Gingrich now has 29, well behind Romney’s 105 and Santorum’s 71.
“We believe by the time Texas is over, we’ll be very, very competitive in delegate count,” Gingrich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week.
Several Republican strategists say Gingrich’s blueprint is more desperate than workable.
They note that most southern states award their delegates by proportion, rather than in winner-take-all fashion. The strategists also point out that Gingrich, whose campaign has suffered from a lack of organization, failed to collect enough valid voter signatures to get him the ballot in Virginia, one of the key Super Tuesday states.
Republican strategist Ron Christie said Gingrich’s plan is “eerily reminiscent” of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous strategy in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Giuliani conceded a few early states and then tried to win big in Florida. He finished third and then dropped out of the race.
“By placing so much faith in one or a handful of states to serve as a firewall, the unintended effect is that then, as now, the strategy appears desperate and the candidate loses support rather than gains momentum,” Christie said.
Another potential complication for Gingrich: The Texas primary, which he sees as a possible momentum-builder, could be postponed beyond April 3 because of a legal battle over the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts.
In recent weeks there have been signs that Gingrich - who twice rode strong debate performances to the top of the polls, only to be toppled by attack ads from Romney or his supporters - is increasingly frustrated with his standing in the race.
At conference of conservatives in Washington last week, Gingrich blasted “the Republican establishment” for getting behind Romney.
“For the Republican establishment, managing the decay is preferable to changing the trajectory (of government), because changing the trajectory requires real fights and requires a real willingness to roll up sleeves and actually take on the left,” Gingrich said at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“That’s why the Republican establishment, whether it’s in 1996 or in 2008, can’t win a presidential campaign,” Gingrich said. “They don’t have the toughness, they don’t have the commitment ... they don’t have the philosophy necessary to build a majority in this country.”
‘CAN HE BE DISCIPLINED?’
Gingrich’s supporters remain hopeful, but many see the March 6 contests as decisive.
Ray Mock, a lobbyist and Gingrich supporter from Virginia who initially backed Perry, said Gingrich has “got to stay relevant through Super Tuesday.” If he can do that, Mock said, the former speaker could be positioned to do well in Texas.
Like many Gingrich supporters, however, Mock said he is worried about “angry Newt” - an erratic candidate bitter about the $20 million that Romney’s camp has spent on ads questioning Gingrich’s ethics, leadership and judgment.
“The reason I didn’t support Newt (initially) is for the same reasons we’re seeing now: Can he be disciplined?” he said.
Some Republicans are concerned that even if he cannot win the nomination, Gingrich could keep his campaign going largely to attack Romney.
“There is a genuine concern that Newt, personifying Captain Ahab, is willing to pursue Mitt Romney regardless -- even in spite of -- the costs to the Republican Party in order to bring his nemesis down,” said Christie, referring to the doomed captain in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
Gingrich’s campaign rejects that notion, saying that Romney’s inability to attract conservatives - which has fueled the rise of Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator - will wind up helping Gingrich as well.
“Mitt Romney is stumbling, and what we’re seeing is he is not strong in the party,” Hammond said. “There’s a fatigue factor with Romney. People are quickly going to grow tired of him.”
Hammond also disputed the idea that a long primary battle could hurt the eventual Republican nominee against Obama.
“What is incredibly good for the party is two conservatives running for the finish line,” Hammond said of Gingrich, 68, and Santorum, 53. “Then it’s experience versus inexperience.”
Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu