Despite lagging, Newt Gingrich argues the nation needs a visionary

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2012 

ELGIN, Ill. — Newt Gingrich is still out there fighting for the Republican presidential nomination, invoking the Bible and Abraham Lincoln as he pushes the idea that America badly needs "a visionary conservative."

"I've stayed in the race because I think Proverbs is right," he told an appreciative audience at Judson University. "It warns that without vision, people will perish."

Gingrich is given little chance of winning the Republican nomination, but he vows to stay in the race.

He said his campaign is having a "halftime resetting of the game plan," and he plans to talk more about "big ideas" involving space, brain science, energy and other topics. He promised "a much clearer definition of a visionary conservative."

But his path to victory is daunting. His hope to gain momentum in the South crumbled Tuesday, when he lost crucial primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. He's trying for a comeback in Illinois, which holds its primary Tuesday, but polling shows him a distant third.

And yet, the former speaker of the House of Representatives insists he's staying in, and he still draws good crowds.

"From casual conversations, I think many people are impressed by some aspect of Gingrich, but repelled by some other," said Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois.

"Almost everyone on the right gives him great credit for the 1994 landslide that brought the GOP back from the wilderness," he said, referring to the Gingrich-led effort that gave Republicans the House majority for the first time in 40 years.

But voters also know Gingrich's history: Two divorces, disdain from congressional colleagues who grew tired of his disorganized leadership style, ethics problems while speaker, and so on.

Whispers are growing louder among conservatives that his presence in the race is making it impossible for Rick Santorum to bring conservatives together to mount a strong challenge to Mitt Romney.

Too bad, Gingrich says.

He presses on, saying he's the only one talking big ideas. If no one has a clear majority of delegates when Republicans convene in August in Tampa, Fla., to pick a nominee, he figures he has a shot.

Supporters are less upbeat.

"We need a father figure. We need the tough love he offers," said Gary Kutina, a retired teacher who waited in a long line Thursday to hear Gingrich speak at Judson University, an evangelical Christian school in Elgin.

Asked if he thought Gingrich had a shot at the nomination, Kutina smiled. "No," he said.

"He's got a lot of good ideas," added Gil Acosta, a retired Navy officer also waiting in the line. "Maybe some of his ideas will rub off on other candidates."

Gingrich doesn't seem to be counting on that. He told the crowd at Judson, as well as at his other stops Wednesday and Thursday in the Chicago suburbs, that he is the race's only political prophet.

"Our political system is methodically and deliberately stupid," he insisted with his trademark blend of anger and resolve "You have bureaucrats with paper competing against crooks with iPads."

At Judson, he called for a "national debate" on the role of religion. "The American people have a right to worship God in the way they want to without being dictated to by judges, the news media or the president of the United States," he said.

Gingrich suggests the 2012 election is akin to the election of 1860 in importance. Abraham Lincoln was a visionary, he explained, a rare politician who saw the need for a transcontinental railroad before others.

Gingrich says he, too, is a man of the future, who understands the potential of technology, particularly for energy exploration. No one else, he says, is talking about such things.

"You can't have a serious conversation. The news media don't cover it, and my opponents don't understand it," he explained. "That's why I'm still running — the vacuum is huge."

But so is the widening gap between Gingrich and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is far ahead in the race for convention delegates, as well as Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has emerged as Romney's chief challenger.

Gingrich has won only South Carolina on Jan. 21 and his home state of Georgia on March 6. His next best hope is probably Louisiana's March 24 primary, which a campaign memo noted is the halfway point of the nominating season, and perhaps Maryland and the District of Columbia on April 3. But the rest of April and part of May feature a string of more Midwestern and Northeastern states.

Gingrich so far has put more time and energy into Illinois this week than any of his rivals. He gets good crowds — 500 showed up at a Lincoln Day dinner in Palatine, and Judson packed its chapel for his address. He got standing ovations from both audiences.

To his supporters, Gingrich is a rare creative thinker.

"It was Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh who were the intellectual leaders" of the 1990s, said local radio talk show host Dan Proft. "We have Newt Gingrich to thank for changing the country in a positive way from 1994 to the present."

But to win Illinois, or anywhere else, Gingrich has to convince folks he's presidential timber — and time is running out. It may even be up, as many Republicans had a view similar to that of Northbrook attorney Brendan Appel.

"I like Newt," he said, "but he's a little unpredictable."

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