It’s morning in St. Petersburg, and Newt Gingrich is talking to a packed house at the charming Tick Tock diner. “I can describe and explain my candidacy with three simple questions,” Gingrich says. “How many of you believe that the United States is seriously on the wrong track?” Everyone raises their hand, and a few clap to affirm.
“How many of you believe that in addition to changing the White House, we have to change the way Congress behaves, the bureaucracy behaves, the courts behave,”—so much for simple questions—“that it’s bigger than Obama, that while he’s the start, there’s a lot more to getting America back on the right track than just [beating] Obama?” More hands go up, and more folks applaud.
“And how many of you believe that even if we win the election the left and the established forces will fight us every single day to try to stop us from changing things?” Heads are nodding. A woman cries out, “Yes!”
“That’s why I’m running,” says Gingrich, though what he is doing on the trail might better be described as “racing.”
Gingrich keeps a full schedule, crammed with events big and small. The talk in St. Petersburg is the first of four public appearances that day, spread out along Florida’s long western coast. The day before the South Carolina primary, he and his wife Callista made a long stop at a children’s hospital in Charleston to tour the facilities and read to a selected group of patients. One afternoon, as I’m driving up I-95 from Ft. Lauderdale, the “Newt 2012” campaign bus, emblazoned with a six-foot-tall photo of Gingrich on its side, zooms past me at over 80 miles an hour. We’re both trying to make Gingrich’s “Space Coast Town Hall Meeting,” where the founder of the Congressional Space Caucus will make the case for manned colonies on the moon. It’s hard to keep up.
The busy calendar may be necessary, since people keep turning out in droves to see Gingrich. Nearly 1,000 people came to a town hall meeting at Bobby’s Bar-B-Q Buffet in Warrenville, South Carolina, while more than 3,000 in Naples, Florida, wait for Gingrich to show up for an outdoor rally 90 minutes late. Most folks don’t seem to mind the delay so long as they can hear and see for themselves the legendary former House speaker’s big show.
And what a show it is. In Coral Springs, Florida, organizers of a rally outside an eatery play a dramatic, patriotic tune over the loudspeakers while the crowd awaits Gingrich’s arrival. When the music hits its stirring crescendo, the Gingrich campaign bus unwittingly emerges, perfectly in sync, from behind the building, as if on cue.
Gingrich has a popular comedy routine, too, which makes him a hit with the talk radio crowd. One enduring humorous jab at Barack Obama concerns the president’s refusal to allow the Canadians to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline through the United States, leaving our neighbors to the north with no choice but to sell the oil to the Chinese. “It’s one thing to say the White House can’t play chess. It’s another thing to say they can’t play checkers,” Gingrich says. “But if they can’t play tic-tac-toe?” The joke kills every time.
But like any stand-up comic, Gingrich has his hecklers. As he begins his speech in Coral Springs, a woman interrupts. “Do you work for the people or Freddie Mac, Newt?” she shouts out.
“I’m glad you asked that,” Gingrich says, not missing a beat. “I work for the people. Of course I work for the people.”
This heckler is persistent, though, and she keeps yelling as the crowd tries overpowering her voice with their own. Gingrich responds with a smirk. “This is a free country,” he says. “People are allowed to come and be noisy. It’s part of the American tradition.”
Gingrich cites a 2008 article in the New York Times as the “only reference” to his talking with members of Congress about Freddie Mac. “I told the House Republicans to vote ‘no’ on giving them any more money. I was opposed to giving them any more money. That is a fact,” he says.
But the woman is relentless, and the diversion is becoming a distraction. So Gingrich squelches it, Newt-style. “Abraham Lincoln once said, if you’re debating somebody who will not agree that two plus two equals four, you’ll never win the debate because facts make no difference,” he says. “We’ve just met one of Abraham Lincoln’s debating partners for whom facts make no difference. . . . Noise without knowledge is not a free society. It’s anarchy.” Cheers and hoots and hollers greet the putdown. The heckler isn’t heard from again.
Gingrich thrives in front of a participatory audience, so the raucous televised debates have been a boon for his campaign. But in the more subdued Florida debates, where the spectators in the hall actually adhere to commands from the networks to pipe down, Gingrich is missing his secret weapon. At least, that’s what the campaign believes. “The two debates that we had in Florida . . . were not staged in the same way,” says former congressman and former state attorney general Bill McCollum, co-chair of the Gingrich campaign in Florida. “The opportunities were not there. He doesn’t have the home run here.”
So Gingrich continues to knock them out of the park during batting practice, hitting everyone from Obama to the news media to his top Republican rival, Romney. The simple question, as the primary season extends beyond the early states, is whether Gingrich can slug it at game time, especially when he’s thrown a curveball.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.