RALEIGH — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich opened his North Carolina presidential primary effort Wednesday, saying he planned to focus much of his attention in the coming weeks on a state that rescued the career of Ronald Reagan in 1976.
Faced with increasing calls for him fold his tent, Gingrich said he planned to stay in the contest in the hope of forcing an open convention in Tampa in August.
“Romney is clearly the front-runner, but he has not locked down the nomination,” Gingrich said in an interview, referring to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “North Carolina could play the same role of turning things around that it did in 1976 for Reagan.”
He was referring to the 1976 North Carolina primary, in which California Gov. Ronald Reagan upset President Gerald Ford, who had previously won every primary. The North Carolina victory is widely regarded as having breathed new life into Reagan’s presidential hopes, allowing him to battle Ford to the national convention, and setting him up to win the nomination and presidency in 1980.
Gingrich begins his campaign in North Carolina having not won a primary in weeks, with his campaign laying off staff and with the national media and party figures questioning why he is continuing.
After sweeping primaries Tuesday in Maryland, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C., Romney’s campaign was taking on the air of inevitability.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely GOP gubernatorial nominee, said Wednesday that Romney “would make an excellent president” and thinks it’s time Republicans start focusing their fire on President Barack Obama rather than on each other.
McCrory wouldn’t go as far as to say that Romney’s GOP opponents should drop out before the May 8 primary. But he did lavish praise on front-runner Romney.
“I have not endorsed him as of yet,” McCrory said. “But I have a great deal of respect for him. So I think he would make an excellent president.”
During the last Bush administration, McCrory and Romney served together on the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council. Because the two know each other, McCrory also said, “I may drop in and see him” when Romney comes to North Carolina on April 18 for fundraisers in Charlotte and Raleigh.
Gingrich on Wednesday made a brief stop in Raleigh, attending private meetings and holding an impromptu news conference before going to Wilmington where he held an event at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He said he planned to campaign three days in the Tar Heel state next week, spending Monday and Tuesday in the Triangle with a possible event at N.C. State University on Monday. Details were still being put together Wednesday.
He also plans to attend a tea party rally in Greensboro on Saturday, April 14.
“We will be back a lot between now and the North Carolina primary,” he said.
Romney now has a commanding lead with 658 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, according to the Associated Press. Former Sen. Rick Santorum has 281 delegates, Gingrich 135 delegates and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul 51 delegates.
“It’s clear that one of two things are going to happen,” Gingrich said. “Either Romney will get the nomination outright by sheer weight of his machine or between Santorum, Ron Paul and I, (we) will get enough delegates to force an open convention. In which case nobody knows what will happen.”
Gingrich said his donors, including those he met Wednesday in Wilmington, “asked me to stay in the race, asked me to fight for conservatism and asked me to develop a message for the platform.”
“They very much do not want me to drop out,” Gingrich said. “They think if Romney wins it, that is one thing. But there is no reason to concede to him.”
Gingrich said he could “easily, happily” endorse Romney if the alternative is the re-election of President Barack Obama.
“All three of us have talked about it, and all three have recognized that compared to the disaster that the re-election Obama would be, it would be easy for us to get together after this is done,” he said.
Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story.
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