Newt Gingrich is running late, again. The rally at the Cambier Park bandstand was supposed to begin at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, but the headlining act is noticeably absent. The various co-hosts, local party leaders, and activists take turns on the microphone to tell “Newt stories” and to rally the crowd, while a brass band intermittently plays patriotic tunes.
There are a few thousand Gingrich fans here, milling on the lawn and in front of the stage and even in the trees. “We want Newt!” they cry.
Gingrich’s tardiness actually begins Tuesday morning, when a call into Laura Ingraham’s radio show delays his appearance at the Tick Tock restaurant in St. Petersburg. There, too, the organizing hosts stretch the time, knowing all along that everybody has parked their cars on the narrow streets behind the small diner and has packed themselves into the cramped dining room in order to see Gingrich. A few people look impatiently at their watches, sipping coffee over empty breakfast plates.
When he finally enters the room, though, all is forgiven. A living GOP legend, Gingrich has the command of this group of mostly gray-hairs, his natural base in Florida. The folks are here to have the Gingrich experience, even for a few minutes.
The same goes for a rally in Sarasota Tuesday afternoon, another event where Gingrich shows up late and no one seems to mind much. In the expansive hangar at Dolphin Aviation, a fixed-base operator at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, a couple thousand supporters are gathered without much to do but stand and wait. A sea of miniature American flags (to be collected at the end of the rally, it’s later discovered) wave and sway in the air as the PA system blasts out Lee Greenwood’s syrupy country hit of yesteryear, “God Bless the U.S.A.” But the delay is clearly getting out of hand once former Ohio congressman Bob McEwen, an early Gingrich ally voted out of office two years before the 1994 Republican Revolution, gets up to talk about the good ol’ days.
Forty-five minutes after the scheduled 1:45 p.m. start time, the Gingrich campaign bus pulls right into the hangar, parking next to the stage. It is, as the former House speaker might say, a “dramatic” entrance. The door opens up and, after a few security officers and staff members, Gingrich and his wife emerge. The crowd goes wild.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any sort of similar response to Mitt Romney, in Florida or elsewhere. Romney is generally punctual and his events are well organized, with every detail checked and rechecked. Family members are blocked on stage like props. Supporters file in, sit down in seats, and generally behave themselves. The show begins, with Romney reciting his lines almost flawlessly. The audience gives the performance a round of applause.
A Gingrich rally, by contrast, is an event planner’s worst nightmare. The folks on stage have no idea where the candidate is, or when he’ll be here, or why he’s behind schedule. Music cues are often missed. Vendors hocking unofficial campaign paraphernalia walk around like they are just a part of the Gingrich operation. If attending a Romney event is like a night at the opera, a Gingrich event is a rock show.
At the end of the day in Naples, the weaknesses of a perpetually delayed campaign begin to reveal themselves. Gingrich is ultimately over an hour and a half late to his outdoor rally. A few would-be attendees begin leaving after about 30 minutes, lawn chairs and blankets in hand. People in the crowd are confused and a little more than annoyed. The sun goes down, and the tireless Ron Paul supporters, who are always cropping up at other candidates’ events, begin moving in on the crowd.
But all of a sudden, a siren rings out as blue and red lights flash on the Gingrich campaign bus rolling up 6th Avenue. Newt’s here!
The crowd swells in the direction of the bus, cheering as Gingrich and his wife exit. He’s the one they’ve been waiting for.