Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at an election… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Reporting from Hoover, Ala. — Newt Gingrich fell short in his bid Tuesday to reignite his presidential campaign with wins in two Southern primaries but did not budge from his pledge to go all the way to the Republican convention, arguing that the results from Alabama and Mississippi undercut Mitt Romney's claim to the nomination.
"One of the things tonight proves is that the elite media's efforts to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed," he told about 200 supporters in a ballroom at the Wynfrey Hotel in the suburbs south of Birmingham. "If you're the front-runner and keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."
Gingrich congratulated Rick Santorum, who won both states, for running a positive campaign, but Gingrich noted that he also would win a substantial number of delegates. He argued that once the primaries are over, it will be clear no one has won -- and that, he insisted, would start a whole new conversation about who can beat President Obama.
The former House speaker argued that his focus on talking about cutting gas prices to $2.50 while campaigning in the oil-producing Gulf Coast states had caught the nation's attention. "We clearly were changing the national dialogue all week," he said. "We are already impacting the national debate on a scale that all of Romney's ad money hasn't achieved."
Gingrich portrayed himself as a visionary leader whose campaign has focused on substance. "It is the reason we're going to go all the way to Tampa to compete for the nomination," he said. "We need, at a time of great problems, great solutions. Great solutions require substance. Substance requires actually knowing something."
The former House speaker had invested a lot of time in the two states. On Tuesday, he was the only candidate in Alabama. He made one brief, low-key speech to a local chamber of commerce, but canceled a planned afternoon visit to the Birmingham Zoo.
Gingrich had hoped that his Southern ties would give him the edge. He moved to Columbus, Ga., which is just across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama, when he was a teenager, and he was elected to Congress in 1978 to represent a district that stretched from the Atlanta suburbs to the Alabama border. He won the Alabama county that is next to Columbus.
Although he has described himself as a "Yankee-born Army brat," he played up his familiarity with Southern culture and values in Alabama. He noted that he lived "right next to Alabama," said he was "relatively at home here" and, tweaking Romney over his comments on grits, insisted that eating them for breakfast "was a very normal thing to do."
The evangelical turnout in both states was enormous, about three-quarters of the voters in Alabama and four-fifths in Mississippi. Gingrich lost them to Santorum.
In the two Southern states, Gingrich won voters who said the budget deficit was the biggest problem, but many more voters said the economy was the top issue. Gingrich also won voters looking for the right experience, but more voters wanted a candidate who could beat Obama.
Michael Niezoda, a legal assistant and high school track coach, said that he was swayed by Gingrich's experience. "I appreciate his proven record," he said, mentioning the "Contract with America," the agenda that helped Republicans win the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades. "He's already proven he has ideas to improve his country and has put them in place."
The 23-year-old said he has heard over and over that the big issue is who can beat Obama. "I'm getting very tired of it," he said, saying he picked the candidate he was confident would do the best job. Besides, he said, Romney was a flip-flopper, although he could not immediately identify a flip. "He's done it on so many issues," he said, "it's hard to pinpoint one."
Patrick Martinez, a 24-year-old document manager, found a place right in front of the stage, hoping to have his photo taken with Gingrich. But he admitted he was just there to see a national figure. He voted for Romney because he thinks he has the best chance to beat Obama. "I believe he will attract the independent vote more than the others," he said.
He said he was troubled by Gingrich's pledge to build a base on the moon. "I didn't like that at all. That's nothing to be talking about right now, in my opinion," he said, saying the candidates need to focus on fixing the economy, not spending money on space exploration.
Martinez said that he was able to convince two or three people at his office to switch from Gingrich to Romney. "This is not good to admit at a Newt rally," he acknowledged.