Newt Gingrich begins his Wisconsin campaign with an appearance at Marquette… (Rick Wood / Associated Press…)
Milwaukee — With his staff sharply scaled back after dismal performances in recent primaries, a subdued Newt Gingrichresumed campaigning Thursday with not so much as a word about his rival contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
The former House speaker, normally combative, opened his campaign in Wisconsin’s primary with an uncharacteristically calm approach that fit his role as a side event to the main fight between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
His remarks to students in a Marquette University auditorium came a few hours after St. Norbert College and Wisconsin Public Radio released a poll finding Gingrich to be highly unpopular among likely voters in Tuesday’s primary. Gingrich ranked in fourth place, behindRep. Ron Paul of Texas, with 4% of likely voters supporting him. Romney had a slight lead over Santorum, within the poll’s margin of sampling error.
In a lecture on the themes of values and innovation, Gingrich made his stock appeal to religious conservatives by attacking the Obama administration for what he called its “attack on Catholicism.”
“This is not about contraception,” he said of the administration's rule requiring religious institutions to include contraception in health insurance plans for employees. “This is about whether or not the government has the power to say to a religious organization, `You will violate your religion.’”
Gingrich avoided Wisconsin’s top-of-mind topic: the upcoming election on the proposed recall of its embattled Republican governor, Scott Walker. Romney and Santorum have warmly embraced Walker’s campaign to survive organized labor’s push to oust him.
But Gingrich did praise another Wisconsin Republican who has become a lightning rod for the national party: Rep. Paul D. Ryan. Nearly a year after stirring an uproar among conservatives by dismissing Ryan’s proposed budget plan as “right-wing social engineering,” Gingrich called the congressman’s current version – passed by the House on Thursday – “dramatically better, very defendable.”
“I admire both his intelligence and his courage,” Gingrich said.
After a lecture that meandered from Communist Poland and the U.S. Civil War to the Wright Brothers, the invention of trolley cars and his visit to Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum, Gingrich took questions from students at the Jesuit university. He tussled with two of them, the first over bilingual education, the second over Gingrich’s belief that Americans’ rights come from God, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
“You totally distorted the position,” he told a young man with a Mohawk haircut who questioned whether Gingrich was suggesting that Americans who were not Christian weren't entitled to the same rights.
Gingrich had hoped that victories across the South would propel him to the nomination, but has won primaries only in South Carolina and Georgia. He lost Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. On Tuesday, when Republicans go to the polls in Wisconsin, Gingrich plans to campaign in North Carolina.
For the most part, the crowd at Marquette was friendly. Patrick Stapf, a 19-year-old marketing major, said he liked Gingrich “because he’s so conservative” and seems more knowledgeable than his opponents. He admired Gingrich for saying nothing critical about Romney, but also saw it as a sign of his fading aspirations. “His polls are really down,” Stapf said.
Kyle Shaffer, 25, a graduate student in philosophy, described himself as a liberal watching Gingrich as “an observational exercise.”
“I’m kind of wondering what his game plan is,” Shaffer said.