15 Minutes With Newt Gingrich

The primaries in Mississippi and Alabama might have been a major disappointment, but Newt Gingrich still has a plan.

As it happens, Louisiana is crucial to it.

Which is why it’s no surprise that Gingrich, who completed a four-stop blitz through the New Orleans area Friday night at a well-attended outdoor rally in downtown Covington, plans to cover the state all next week from Monday afternoon through Friday.

“Doing well here is significant,” Gingrich said. “There’s no question it’s very important. We’d love to carry the state.”

That seems possible, as the former House Speaker’s campaign has attracted a solid group of Louisiana veterans among his operatives in the state and the most recent poll on the race, conducted by Clarus Research for WWL-TV and released last Monday, showed Gingrich at 20 percent – still in third place, but just five points behind Rick Santorum and one behind Mitt Romney. With 26 percent undecided in that poll, it’s anybody’s race. And the Tulane graduate aims to reel it in.

In general, though, Gingrich says he’s got to hang around, picking up delegates along the way – hopefully in larger numbers than in recent weeks, though Gingrich expressed some satisfaction in last week’s Mississippi and Alabama results despite many in the media calling them disappointing for him – and then making a major resurgence in Texas on the way to a final showdown in California. His camp has looked at the numbers and thinks he has a path to the nomination, though he admits it’s a bit messy.

But that’s how the campaign has gone thus far for Gingrich, who in December saw himself as the nominee-in-waiting thanks to huge poll advantages and rising momentum before millions of dollars of negative ads – most of which coming from current frontrunner Mitt Romney – ultimately took their toll in Iowa and later Florida. Wins in South Carolina and Georgia have kept him in the race, but he’s struggling so far to make the “third comeback” his campaign believes is in the cards.

And that, he believes, will come because of two things.

First, he’s got an issue. Gingrich’s campaign mantra of $2.50 per gallon gasoline and his message of promoting domestic energy isn’t really a new one – “I was the creator of Drill Here, Drill Now back in 2008 and wrote a book by that name,” he reminds – but the current runup in gas prices is beginning to look like it could be the defining issue of this campaign given the Obama administration’s incompetent, and increasingly desperate, handling of the problem.

“I wouldn’t have expected gas prices to be this significant this early,” Gingrich said, noting that prior runups in price usually haven’t happened until May or June, “but I was in Chicago yesterday. And gasoline was $4.59 up there. I don’t care who you are – a suburban mom, a commuter, an independent trucker, a dry cleaner – you can’t escape the effect of this.

“Two months ago it was taxes and growth (that were the focus of the campaign). But this is national security, economics, government revenue and disposable income all wrapped up into one package. Not to mention Obama is so weird on this subject. It’s a very simple choice – do we want a drilling president, or an algae president?”

The significance of energy to this campaign, Gingrich says, can be seen in the administration’s reaction to his $2.50 a gallon message of recent days – in which Obama has likened promoters of domestic drilling to the Flat Earth Society, made a somewhat strange, though repetitive, assertion that increased production of oil and gas wouldn’t lower prices and bragged about an overall increase in American oil and gas production during his time in office despite the fact that increase has come completely on private lands while production offshore and on federal lands has fallen off significantly.

“We’re in third place,” Gingrich says, “and they’re arguing with us. Clearly we’re getting traction here.”

It’s perhaps coincidental, though fortunate for the former House Speaker, that the energy debate is crashing ashore just in time for the March 24 Louisiana primary. Energy is the issue among Louisiana Republicans, as oil and gas is not only the historical driver of the state’s economy since the 1930’s but a very significant part of its future; Louisiana is a center of the nation’s petrochemical industry and offshore exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico is serviced in large part from Louisiana communities from Cameron to Chalmette. The promise of newfound increases in offshore riches from oil and gas, which hasn’t been dimmed despite the 2010 BP oil spill and the Obama administration’s subsequent drilling moratorium, is a key driver of economic optimism within the state – and frustration with the Obama administration for what is widely seen as obstruction and incompetence costing Louisiana businesses profits and local economies jobs.

But it’s not just offshore where Louisianans see a bright hydrocarbon future. The state is already percolating with newfound wealth from the Haynesville Shale in its northwest, though many of those natural gas wells have been shut in due to current low prices and an incompletely-developed demand (due in some measure to broken incentives from bad government policies). People here believe that will ultimately change, but in the meantime two other major finds – the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale running across the middle part of the state and the Brown Dense Shale in its northeast – contain both natural gas and oil and are ramping up exploration quickly. Louisiana is awash in potential energy wealth; all the state needs is the right economic and policy conditions and a renaissance of sorts in the near term is quite likely.

And so the strongest energy message between Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney over the next week is likely going to be the winner in the Bayou State. All three seem to understand that; Gingrich is pushing it hardest to date.

But while energy may highlight his policy message, Gingrich thinks there’s a political message to be had as well as the Louisiana-Texas-California strategy plays out. And it involves a bit of payback against Romney for all those negative ads.

“There is an illegitimacy to Romney,” he notes, “in that here we have $17 billion in federal bailout money to Goldman Sachs and he’s the single largest recipient of donations from that firm. Essentially, it’s your tax dollars being recycled into negative political ads.”

Gingrich thinks the frontrunner’s inability to close the deal with the GOP electorate to date underscores something he thinks more and more people are beginning to worry about, namely that “he’ll lose to Obama.”

While that political message might need some work, it’s clear Romney is not as strong with the Republican electorate as his campaign and the GOP establishment would like him to be. And while Santorum and Gingrich would seem to be canceling each other as effective non-Romneys, Gingrich notes that polls show were he to be out of the race his support would likely split between Santorum and Romney – meaning that contrary to the media narrative which says the three-man race is helping Romney, it might just be what’s keeping the former Massachusetts governor from converting his talk of inevitability into reality.

“Santorum and I can keep him out” of getting the nomination, he says.

So what happens then? What happens if none of the three can get to the 1144 delegates needed to become the nominee after all the primaries are done in June?

Gingrich knows the conventional wisdom is that this is a disaster for the GOP. He disagrees.

“We get to have a two-month national conversation which the media will cover intensely,” he says, “and then we’ll have four days in Tampa with the whole world watching. And when we have a nominee at the end of that process, what kind of attention do you think that nominee will have for his acceptance speech? What kind of bounce do you think the nominee will have?”

As to fundraising and organization for a two-month general election sprint, Gingrich is similarly less afraid than establishment.

“This is a society with the internet, Facebook, 24-hour talk radio and cable news,” he says. “Getting a message out has never been easier.”

It’s an optimistic outlook, no doubt. And he’ll have to thread a very small needle to make that optimism a reality.

But for Gingrich, it’s always been about ideas and issues, and he thinks the public is coming back into his wheelhouse on perhaps the most significant issue in American politics – and he can take a big swing in a state where he sees an excellent chance at turning his fortunes once more.

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