CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Sonny Perdue's position. He is the former governor of Georgia.
Most people thought it would end badly. But nobody knew it would happen this quickly.
Republican strategists, conservative activists, and pundits of all stripes couldn’t figure out why 67-year-old Newt Gingrich, 12 years after leaving his last job in public office, thought he could win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. At worst, they saw him as a thrice-married, over-the-hill politician whose decade-long stint as a pundit on Fox News had exacerbated his self-sabotaging penchant for outrageous commentary.
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But none of them would have predicted this: Less than a month after the former speaker of the House announced over Twitter that he was running for president, his campaign came crashing down on Thursday with the mass resignation of nearly his entire senior staff. Even as he vowed, via Facebook, to continue his bid, his own national campaign co-chairman, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, was jumping to rival Tim Pawlenty's camp.
"He is the person I now believe stands the greatest chance of beating President Obama," Perdue said of the former Minnesota governor in a statement released by the Pawlenty campaign just hours after news of the Gingrich exodus leaked out.
Even Gingrich admitted that a scheduled announcement on Sunday in Los Angeles amounts to a campaign restart. “The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles,” he wrote.
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Thursday’s resignations are just the latest blow for Gingrich’s fledgling effort. Less than a week after he announced in a now-infamous appearance on "Meet The Press," the ex-congressman from Georgia called a House Republican plan to overhaul Medicare "radical" and "right-wing social engineering." A firestorm of criticism followed, and Gingrich spent a week backtracking and eventually apologizing.
He was also dogged by reports that he had opened a $500,000 credit line at the jewelry store Tiffany’s. Perhaps the final indignity came last week, when Gingrich and his wife, Callista, began a two-week cruise off the coast of Greece while most of his rivals were barnstorming Iowa and New Hampshire.
“The two-week vacation was not helpful,” admitted Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman and aide of more than a decade, as he made his exit from the campaign.
With doubts already mounting about his candidacy’s legitimacy before he declared, Gingrich needed to run a near-flawless campaign to be seen as a viable threat at winning the nomination. Instead, he has run what will likely go down as one of the worst presidential campaigns ever.
"There's always turnover on presidential campaigns, but I can't remember one where the entire campaign leadership up and quit in one day," said Mike Feldman, a veteran of Al Gore's 2000 campaign, which underwent a major midcourse correction that involved some staff shake-ups and a headquarters move from Washington to Nashville. "Money is the lifeblood of primary campaigns, and what fundraisers look for is viability. Gingrich does not look like a sound investment, and the campaign could soon be starved of funds."
Gingrich’s poll numbers suffered badly before Thursday’s news: A recent Gallup poll found that 33 percent of Republicans held either an unfavorable or strongly unfavorable view of him. It was by far the highest disapproval in the GOP field, surpassing even the controversial Sarah Palin.
Although he enjoyed higher name recognition than most of his rivals, Gingrich rarely polled well in matchups against them. That lack of support means that his campaign's implosion will have a negligible effect on the rest of the field, although there will likely be great interest in securing the now-departed staff members.
How Gingrich’s campaign will proceed is unknown. He’s scheduled to make an appearance on Sunday in Los Angeles before flying to New Hampshire for a presidential debate.
"Newt can survive to the extent the media continues to want to hear from him,'' said Keith Appell, a Republican consultant who has worked for Gingrich. "He would have to move quickly to replenish staff. The Iowa straw poll is two months away, and he really needs to finish in top three to be legit.''
It’s unclear how many staffers remain with Gingrich as he vows to carry on. At least one spokesman, Joe DeSantis, told National Journal that he "enthusiastically" remains on the campaign, although he declined to answer when asked how many others do. Gingrich's bid, already seen as a longshot, is likely now relegated to sideshow status.