Can Newt Gingrich save his campaign?

Some GOP strategists say his presidential campaign is as good as done following his criticism of Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare, but Newt Gingrich isn't giving up. The week ahead could be telling.

By , Staff writer

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    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to local party activists, on May 19, in Waterloo, Iowa. Gingrich says his campaign is alive and well despite an angry response by some Republicans to earlier comments he made about a plan to dramatically change Medicare.
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It’s tempting to conclude that Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid is over already. Some pundits and Republican strategists have already said as much, especially amid reports that donors are dropping him like a hot rock.

But Mr. Gingrich and his team aren’t giving up, after a campaign rollout week that can only be described as horrific.

Four days after the fact, Republicans are still trying to figure out why the former House speaker trashed GOP budget leader Paul Ryan’s plan for a privatized Medicare in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Gingrich has since apologized repeatedly for his “mistake,” but the episode has only highlighted Gingrich’s old Achilles’ heel – a lack of discipline.

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Another PR blow this week – a debt to Tiffany’s of between $250,000 and $500,000, unearthed by Politico – does not bode well for Gingrich’s ability to win grass-roots support. He has refused to comment on the story, including whether the reported debt has been paid.

The days ahead will test Gingrich’s potential to recover. On Sunday, he appears on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” On Monday, he sits down with reporters in Washington at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. Then he makes his first trip to New Hampshire, home of the first primary, as a presidential candidate. On Wednesday, he speaks at a house party in Manchester hosted by former Senate candidate Ovide LaMontagne’s Granite Oath PAC. And on Thursday, he addresses a Seacoast Republican Women’s breakfast at the Portsmouth Country Club.

“This campaign is very alive and very well with lots of grass-roots support,” Gingrich told a crowd in Waterloo, Iowa, Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “It's been a little bit of a challenging week.”

One factor working in Gingrich’s favor is that most voters are not paying close attention to the presidential race yet. But activists and high-dollar donors are, and without them, it will be hard for him to survive.

“I’ve got to think that they’re looking at all this and shaking their heads,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

Even if average voters may not be following all the twists and turns of Gingrich’s travails, they already have impressions of him from the mid-1990s as a high-octane, if controversial, speaker of the House, and more recently as a Fox commentator, author, and policy entrepreneur. For some, the impressions are not good. Even before his latest stumbles, polls showed unfavorable ratings almost as high as his favorables.

But with the GOP field still forming, now is the time to lock in support. In New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads in GOP polls by a wide margin, some Republicans are looking for an “anybody-but-Romney conservative.”

“Newt fits the bill in that sense, but conservative New Hampshire voters are going to be asking the same question as moderate New Hampshire voters,” says UNH’s Mr. Scala. “They’re concerned with viability as well.”

Some Republicans are already convinced that Gingrich cannot beat President Obama.

“The opponent Obama needs to run against, the only one he can beat, is the old, uncaring Republican,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos wrote on the Daily Caller website Tuesday. “It is not a caricature he needs to create. It lives, it walks, it breathes. It’s the Gingrich. In this operatic campaign of seduction, he is the devil in a red dress, a temptress who would lead Republicans to ruin.”

The next day, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler added fuel to the fire, when he issued an over-the-top statement to Huffington Post going after the political and media elites who have bashed Gingrich.

“The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding,” Mr. Tyler wrote. “Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods.”

The Obama White House and the Democrats have found the Gingrich mess irresistible.

“Biggest takeaway from the Gingrich flap – ending Medicare as we know it is the new GOP litmus test,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said on Wednesday.

The Democratic National Committee echoed that point in a web ad posted Thursday. “Ending Medicare is the new GOP litmus test,” the ad concludes.

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