MILLSBORO, Del. – At 7 p.m. on Thursday, in the back shed of a firehouse, a presidential candidate who continually concedes he’s unlikely to capture the Republican nomination held a rally – and 350 people showed up.
Earlier, Newt Gingrich spoke to more than 150 people in nearby Magnolia. And a day earlier, he greeted a sold-out auditorium that seats more than 400 at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
The Republicans who come to Gingrich’s campaign events, signs in hand and ready to offer standing ovations, are under no illusions that the former House speaker is going to overtake Mitt Romney to become to Republican nominee. In fact, many say they’re ready to support Romney if he gets the nomination as expected.
For now, they just like hearing what Gingrich has to say.
“I love the guy,” said Linda Creasy of Lewes, Del. “I’d love to see him in there. I think he’s the smartest; I think he has the most to offer. He just doesn’t have the most money.”
That last fact has become clearer as Gingrich continues his seemingly quixotic effort. His campaign just underwent a restructuring that included dramatic cuts to staff and budget; in Millsboro, he and his wife Callista took to a podium decorated not with campaign insignia, but wireless microphones stranded haphazardly by panicked reporters who arrived at the event to find no audio setup, no press riser and no advance team.
After the speech, Sussex County Republican Party spokesman Duke Brooks said he’ll vote for Gingrich in the April 24 Delaware primary. “There’s no question about it,” he said. But, Brooks added, “Of course, in the general election I will absolutely get behind whoever the Republican nominee is.”
Asked whether he holds out hope that his candidate will somehow become that nominee, Brooks shrugged and acknowledged, “Mathematically, it seems not.” But he said he finds “interesting” Gingrich’s argument that however unlikely, a win in Delaware could reverberate in larger states such as North Carolina and Texas.
“Even if we still can’t get the nomination, we roll into the [Republican National Convention] in Tampa with a brokered convention in the offing,” Brooks said. “And if we do that, in the long run, I think that can only be good for the party, because it’s going to flesh out a lot of ideas, and a lot of people are going to pay attention to it.”
That’s Gingrich’s message as well. On Thursday he announced that he will soon be amplifying some of his more conservative policy planks in an effort to “pose for Romney, is he prepared to be, as he put it, ‘severely conservative?’ Or does he want to try and have an Etch A Sketch platform?”
Questioned by reporters on whether this new phase underscores Romney’s inevitability, Gingrich said “No,” but added that “part of the debate for the next two months ought to be, is [Romney] prepared to say up front that he wants a conservative platform?”
Brooks likened Gingrich’s new priority in shaping the party’s dialogue to that of the other also-ran, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has yet to win a single state contest. “In terms of personal enthusiasm for the candidate, as a group, [Paul supporters] are off the scale,” he said. “That’s what you need if you’re going to effect change in what people are talking about.”
But some voters remain skeptical about Gingrich. Rich Collins of Millsboro said he came to the rally on Thursday less to hear the former House speaker and more to see what kind of turnout and reception he got.
“I’d love to vote for him,” Collins said. “But that’s if I thought he had any chance of winning at all. I like a lot of what he said today, but I just don’t know that he can get elected. At this point, it’s unfortunate, but it will be tough.”
So if Gingrich lacks the money, the campaign resources, and the poll numbers to become the party’s nominee in November, why do so many supporters continue to show up at rallies across the map?
One attendee walking past in Millsboro overheard the question and channeled the baseball cinema classic Field of Dreams: “If Newt debates, they will come,” he shouted as he hurried past. He then turned around to clarify, “If Newt speaks, they will come.”