BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With losses in Alabama and Mississippi, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has changed. In the past, the campaign was about winning, or trying to win, or at least claiming to be trying to win. Now, it’s about keeping Mitt Romney from winning.
Gingrich no longer says he can capture the 1,144 delegates required to wrap up the Republican nomination. Instead, he now speaks frankly about a new plan: Keep Romney from getting to 1,144 by the end of the GOP primary season in June, and then start what Gingrich calls a “conversation” about who should be the Republican nominee. That conversation, the plan goes, would lead to a brokered GOP convention at which Gingrich would emerge as the eventual nominee.
“Our goal first is to keep Romney well below 1,000,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said an hour before Gingrich addressed a small crowd of disappointed supporters gathered at the Wynfrey Hotel. “It doesn’t have to be 1,000, or 1,050 — it has to be below 1,100.” If Gingrich succeeds, Hammond continued, “This will be the first time in our party in modern politics that we’re going to go to the convention floor.”
On election eve, after a long day of campaigning, Gingrich relaxed on a couch at the Wynfrey and vowed to keep challenging Romney through the summer — long after the primaries have ended. If he can keep the former Massachusetts governor from hitting the 1,144 delegate mark, Gingrich said, “Then on the 26th of June, there’s a real conversation. We haven’t seen in our lifetime a situation where you actually had a political process beyond who wins the primaries.” As he has several times in recent days, Gingrich brought up the case of Leonard Wood, the Army general who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.
“The reason I keep citing Leonard Wood is because in 1920, Wood goes into the convention as the frontrunner,” Gingrich said. “[Warren G.] Harding goes in as the guy who’s in sixth place, and at the end of ten ballots, Harding is the nominee and Wood is gone.” More than 90 years later, that’s the scenario Gingrich sees as his own path to victory.
To buttress the case, top Gingrich aide Randy Evans sent a memo to reporters on Tuesday noting that the Republican race is about to reach its precise mid-point in the awarding of delegates. By the time the race reaches Louisiana on March 24, about half of the required 1,144 delegates will have been awarded. Will Romney win at least half of those, or 572 delegates? If not, then what is the case that Romney is the inevitable nominee?
“Mathematically, the numbers are just not there,” says the Evans memo. “Instead, with four candidates remaining, the GOP nomination now moves into uncharted waters, with history in the making.”
The Romney campaign disputes Gingrich’s calculation: “His math is wrong — we’ve won OVER 50 percent of the delegates thus far,” writes one Romney aide. But the fact is, Romney’s lead is not overwhelming, as long as a rival candidate is thinking not about overtaking Romney but just about keeping him from reaching 1,144. Whatever the case, Gingrich’s delegate argument is a rationale for his staying in the race, even after losing two states, Alabama and Mississippi, that some Gingrich advisors called must-win, at least before he didn’t win them.
Of course, it’s more than a little presumptuous for Gingrich, with a grand total of around 130 delegates, to propose to stop Romney, who has more than three times that number. That’s where Rick Santorum, the winner of both Alabama and Mississippi, comes in. When asked about the plan to prevent Romney from reaching 1,144, spokesman Hammond said, “I think we share that strategy with Santorum.” Hammond did not mean a coordinated, secret sort of strategy, but just a common interest, something that Gingrich himself acknowledged on an Alabama radio station Tuesday. “With Rick and me together, we are really slowing him down, with some help frankly from Ron Paul,” Gingrich said. “The country is sort of saying, a majority is saying, ‘Not Romney.’ The biggest bloc is saying Romney, but it’s not a big enough bloc to be a majority. We now are beginning to think he will literally not be able to get the delegates to get the nomination.”