Newt Gingrich, Cheerful Zombie

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The former House speaker, a dead man walking in the Republican presidential primary, contemplates history and the moon in his campaign's twilight.

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Reuters

Updated 10:41 p.m.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Standing Tuesday in the historic senate chamber of the Maryland state house, a few paces from a wax figure of a dreamy-looking George Washington, Newt Gingrich pondered a plaque on the floor.

"Standing on this spot, General Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783," the plaque read.

It was hard to imagine Gingrich wasn't contemplating a transition of his own as he surveyed the crumbling, brick-walled chamber. After a couple of meteoric ascents followed by an ignominious fade, Gingrich's status as a Republican primary candidate has slipped from longshot to sideshow. Late Tuesday, Politico reported Gingrich had fired his campaign manager and laid off staffers in a bid to stay alive a bit longer. But as a man with an appreciation for history, Gingrich surely has an eye on the sweep of his own great-man story.

Gingrich these days is the walking dead, politically speaking, but he is a cheerful zombie, seemingly at peace with the way things have played out and satisfied to amble through the rest of the primaries and see how he does.

His Tampa-or-bust vow to march all the way to the Republican convention in August has softened somewhat; in a press conference after his statehouse tour, he allowed for the possibility that Mitt Romney would wrap up the nomination after the last primary on June 26, and said if that happened, "Obviously, I will support him, and I will be delighted to do everything I can to help him defeat Barack Obama."

In the old senate chamber, a copy of Washington's handwritten resignation speech sat in a hexagonal console in the middle of the room. As Gingrich's guide, a statehouse employee named Patricia Harrison, described in great detail the renovations planned for the room, he studied the text, keeping his place with a plump finger on the brass plate where its words were reproduced.

"The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor ... to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country," the letter begins. Washington gives thanks for the war's successful end and praises the officers who served him, then concludes: "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."

Finishing the reading of the passage in silence, Gingrich paused for a long moment. "Hmm," he said.

Gesturing toward the sloping, sepia-toned script of Washington's handwritten draft, he commented, "It's interesting to see his own editing -- to see how he changed words. Very cool. A remarkable man."

The crowd on hand for Gingrich was small: a smattering of state lawmakers and staff; a group of children from Christian schools in matching yellow fleece scarves, there to lobby for National School Choice Week. Exiting the building to a chilly, sun-drenched patio, trailed by his Secret Service detail, Gingrich moseyed up to the microphone for a short press conference in front of a phalanx of cameras befitting a real presidential contender.

It was nice to be in Maryland, he said. (The state holds a primary in a week, along with Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.) "I have a lot of different relationships here, including writing novels that take place in part of Maryland," he noted.

"Look, clearly we're going to have to go on a fairly tight budget to get from here to Tampa, but I think we can do it and we will do it."

It was also, he said, "one of the most historic sites in the history of freedom, where Washington came to resign his commission after the war. George III said if Washington actually would give up power he'd be the greatest man of the century. And Washington did, and went home to Mount Vernon."

At the time, Washington was not an old man, and though his military career would come to an end, his political career had not yet begun. Before any questions could be asked, Gingrich sought to preempt the inevitable queries.

"The race is going to go on," he said. "Governor Romney is the front-runner, but he is a long way from a majority. We have had 10 million people vote so far in the primaries; about 4 million voted for Romney, and 6 million voted for people other than Romney." Just 2.2 million have voted for Gingrich, a fact he didn't mention.

If someone secures a majority, he said, "I will be for whoever the Republican nominee is. If, however, we get to June 26 and Governor Romney does not have a majority, I think we will then have one of the most interesting open conventions in American history. It'll be a 60-day dialogue on television, radio, the Internet, all the way up to Tampa. And the question that will be asked is, who can best beat Barack Obama? And at that point, I think most Republicans agree that I would probably do a better job debating Obama than any other candidate, and I think it becomes a very viable, lively campaign."

Gingrich then fielded questions, most about his dying campaign, with equanimity. He laughed at a question about Sen. Lindsey Graham's recent statement that "the fat lady hasn't sung yet, but she's warming up." "I don't know if Mitt Romney wants to be considered the fat lady," Gingrich said.

Even if he's not battling for the nomination, he said, he intends to be a factor at the convention by making sure the party stays true to its principles. "One of my goals would be, even if Romney does end up as the nominee, to make sure we don't have an Etch A Sketch platform," he said. "I think people want a conservative platform. They want a conservative campaign this fall, and I intend to be there all the way to Tampa."

No print reporters are trailing Gingrich full time; he has begun to charge supporters to take pictures with him at events, and his last financial reporting showed his campaign in the red. Gingrich said he wasn't bothered. "Everywhere I go, we get a lot of coverage," he said. "Look, clearly we're going to have to go on a fairly tight budget to get from here to Tampa, but I think we can do it and we will do it."

Finally, there was a question on another topic.

"The Goddard Space Center is here in Maryland. You have advocated -- do you still advocate a dramatic increase in the number of moon flights, and might that mean more jobs for Maryland?"

Gingrich brightened.

"Well, I'm certainly deeply committed to a space program that is very, very dynamic," he said. "And if you look at what the Chinese are doing in space, we are very foolish not to have an aggressive space program. But I would also, frankly, overhaul NASA. There's something profoundly wrong with the NASA bureaucracy when we've spent $181 billion over the last decade and we do not have a rocket that can lift a human being into space."

For Gingrich, stranded on earth, there may not be a rocket that can take him where he wants to go.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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