As his campaign winds down, the big questions hanging over Newt Gingrich’s run for president are why he’s so determined to keep at it, and whether he will tarnish his legacy or hurt the Republican Party in the process.
Gingrich still has a chance to bow out of the race gracefully before the August convention, redirecting his rhetorical fire from GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and focusing instead on President Obama.
But a continued jeremiad against the likely Republican nominee, including an insistence on taking his campaign to the convention, will tarnish Gingrich’s legacy, some GOP figures say. To them, Gingrich's determination to stick around in hopes of claiming the nomination at a contested convention is another in a string of recent signals that he is headed for an ignominious exit.
“The strategy and tactics are obvious and sad, frankly,” said Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide in the 1990s who has been critical of his presidential campaign. “They don’t make any sense outside the reality-distortion field of Newt Gingrich.
“It’s kind of, he’s reduced to Buddy Roemer status almost,” Galen added, referring to the long-shot candidacy of the former Louisiana governor. “Why would you do this and go from object of admiration to an object of pity, which I think is the danger.”
Gingrich has said he plans to promote ideas and refrain from criticizing his rivals. But such vows haven't lasted long in earlier phases of the campaign. And even if he sticks to attacking Obama, his penchant for controversial rhetoric could prove damaging to him and his party.
That appeared to already happen last week, when Gingrich drew widespread criticism after going after Obama on a pair of touchy subjects.
At a campaign stop in Louisiana, Gingrich said the misperception that Obama is a Muslim is at least partly the president’s own fault. “Why does the president behave the way that people would think that?” he asked. “You have to ask, why would they believe that? It's not because they're stupid.”
Later, in an appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show, Gingrich said Obama’s statement on the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (that if he had a son, he would "look like Trayvon") was “disgraceful.”
That drew a forceful push back from Obama senior adviser David Plouffe. “Those comments are reprehensible," Plouffe said on ABC’s This Week. “And, you know, Speaker Gingrich is clearly in the last throes of his political career.”
Even most Republicans say Gingrich's presidential campaign, if not his political career, should be over. A CNN/ORC poll released on Tuesday reported that 60 percent of Republicans think he should end his campaign. That’s a number that could spike even higher if Gingrich uses his remaining time in the spotlight to bash Romney, which could lead to criticism that he’s only helping Obama win reelection.
“I think Newt could best be served by not attacking Romney but keeping focus on Obama,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former House aide. “Slicing up our nominee is not helpful if your ultimate goal is to beat Obama.”
For Feehery, Gingrich’s legacy is far from tarnished. Gingrich has already run a far more competitive campaign than expected, he said, and can salvage what’s left by training his fire exclusively on the current White House occupant. Besides, he added, his real legacy is already cemented as the architect of the Republican House takeover in 1994 -- the first time in 40 years the GOP had won control of the House.
Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who helps run the super PAC allied with Gingrich, said the former speaker's legacy is secure pretty much regardless of what he does. “I don’t think Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy was negatively affected, and Teddy actually left the party and created a third party,” Tyler said. “And Newt isn’t going to do that.”
Still, as Tyler acknowledged in the wake of Gingrich’s disappointing defeats earlier this month in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, fundraising for his super PAC will be a challenge. And polls indicate his most realistic goal in several upcoming primaries isn’t winning, but managing to finish ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
A Marquette University poll in Wisconsin released on Tuesday found Gingrich was in fourth place in the four-man field, at just 5 percent. In Pennsylvania -- where he was born and where he made his first media splash, at age 11, by lobbying Harrisburg officials to open a zoo -- a new Franklin & Marshall College poll had him in last place with 6 percent.
Polls like these are strong indicators that claiming the nomination is out reach for Gingrich. But preserving his legacy and helping his party are not.