FREDERICK, Md. - "Either Romney will self destruct, or Romney will be the nominee," says Newt Gingrich, having lunch with a small group of supporters between campaign appearances on the eve of the Maryland, Wisconsin, and District of Columbia primaries. "Nobody is going to beat him head-to-head because you can't compete with the weight of his money."
Strapped for cash and struggling to stay in the game after a series of losses in Southern states he thought he could win, Gingrich has in the last few days come up with a strategy to "redirect" his campaign. He will continue to travel -- "less expensively" -- to some primary states and will not quit the race until Romney reaches the number of delegates required to clinch the Republican presidential nomination. But Gingrich says he will now focus his efforts on persuading GOP delegates to adopt a series of platform proposals that will hold Romney to conservative positions.
"The delegates are well to the right of Romney," Gingrich says. "That doesn't mean they necessarily want to buck Romney, but I do think they may well say to Romney, 'It would really be good for you to run as a genuine conservative.'"
"Does this guy run on an actively conservative platform?" Gingrich asks, "or do they in fact try to run on an Etch-A-Sketch blank slate platform? I don't think he'll have any support in the conservative movement unless he accepts a conservative platform."
A platform, that is, that closely resembles Gingrich's own campaign platform. The former House speaker wants Romney to adopt what Gingrich calls the American Energy Independence program, including a proposal to use the vast revenues from new oil-and-gas exploration licensing to pay down the national debt. Gingrich will also press Romney to commit to specific reforms of Social Security, including personal accounts. And Gingrich wants Romney to sign on to a list of proposals concerning religious liberty.
Almost daily, Gingrich is sending out signs that he ultimately expects Romney to win the delegates required to secure the nomination. "I can't tell you today how realistic it is that we'll get to an open convention," he told a rally at a Frederick car dealership before lunch. "But Gov. Romney doesn't have it locked down, and we have no obligation to back off and concede anything until he gets it done."
By that, Gingrich doesn't mean he'll give up when Romney hits the widely-cited figure of 1,144 delegates required to win the nomination. Like Rick Santorum, Gingrich does not recognize a GOP decision to award all of Florida's and Arizona's delegates to Romney, in spite of a party rule saying those primaries should allocate delegates proportionally. So by saying he won't get out until Romney "gets it done," Gingrich actually means until Romney hits something beyond the 1,200-delegate mark.
Gingrich still has supporters who want him to go all the way. "Things can turn on a dime," says Karen Winterling, Gingrich's Maryland coordinator, who believes Romney might still blow himself up with a gaffe or major campaign mistake. "Something could happen and Newt could go right to the top."
"He should not quit," says Bonnie Nash of Frederick. "Never quit. Mr. Romney is a very nice man, but I just do not see him as my president."
Another woman, Whitney Riley of Sparks, Maryland, held a $50 check made out to Newt.org as she waited in line to meet Gingrich at the car dealership. On the line noting the check's purpose, Riley had written, "We the people thank you."
Of those donors, Gingrich says, "We owe it to them to not take a dive."
"To not drop out?"
Still, Gingrich appears to concede that, barring some unforeseen happening, Romney will win the nomination. And Gingrich is also plainly recognizing that his own campaign is a shadow of what it was during his two hot streaks, in Iowa and South Carolina. The big blue NEWT bus is gone, the crowds are smaller, the staff is smaller. Still, Gingrich is trying to use the influence he won in the campaign, coupled with remaining conservative distrust of Romney, to nail the former Massachusetts governor down to some specific policy commitments.
"Look, I don't have the hubris to say, I came in third in collecting delegates, so I'm now going to dictate the platform," Gingrich says at lunch. "What I am going to say is that this represents my honest thoughts ... about what America needs."
"You may ultimately lose the battle of candidacy, but that doesn't mean you lose the battle of ideas."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.