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."
Can Gingrich really stay in? He points to the 175,000 people who have contributed to his campaign and his recent success in pursuing President Obama on the issue of gas prices. In the election eve interview, Gingrich said he is a more disciplined campaigner now and realizes that his complaining -- some would say whining -- about Romney's attacks on him ended up hurting him with voters. "It was clear looking at what the results were that talking about process was to my disadvantage, and talking about substance was totally to my advantage," Gingrich said. "So I'm back talking about substance." It's a realization Gingrich simply had to come to, but on the other hand, it comes pretty late in the game.
None of that will stop Republicans from calling on Gingrich to get out of the race. After Tuesday's results were clear, the prominent conservative PR man Keith Appell sent out an email saying Gingrich had "given it a great run," but that Santorum "has earned a mano-a-mano shot at Mitt Romney." Noting continued conservative unhappiness with Romney, Appell wrote, "It's clear that conservatives across the country are sending a clear message to the Republican establishment: 'nothing is over until we decide it is.'"
At the moment at least, Gingrich appears in a mood to reject all calls for him to leave the race. "What pressure is there going to be?" he asked on Fox News Tuesday night. "That the Romney people want me to get out? That the Washington establishment wants me to get out?"
But the Washington establishment, or more accurately the East Coast establishment, is about to declare Gingrich dead. After Tuesday's primary, reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times were leaving the Gingrich campaign; it's not clear how regularly the papers will cover Gingrich from now on. That's a sign of establishment rejection that Gingrich would relish -- he's scored a lot of political points attacking the media -- but the real worry is that the Gingrich campaign might slowly fade from press coverage. And then -- far more ominously -- those 175,000 donors might begin to lose their enthusiasm, along with their resolve to give again.
The test of Gingrich's strategy will come in the next few days when the former Speaker will not only have to resist calls to leave the race, but also keep raising money -- all as he tries to win enough delegates to hold up his end of the stop-Romney effort. It's a tough, tough assignment, even for a man with a brand-new strategy.