In the latest evidence that Newt Gingrich isn’t exiting the GOP race anytime soon, the former House speaker ended a closed-door meeting on Wednesday with his backers in Congress poised to push ahead with his campaign, possibly through the June 5 primary in California.
When he sat down this week with 10 of the 11 lawmakers who have endorsed him, each of them took turns offering their assessment of the health of the Gingrich candidacy. While some of the lawmakers expressed misgivings about the toll his continuing in the race would take on the eventual Republican nominee, none of them called on Gingrich to drop out.
Four of the attendees, who spoke with NBCPolitics.com, said that Gingrich's interest in staying in the race is driven by a desire to advance certain policy proposals in the primary and general elections.
“We believe that Newt staying in there is very helpful to the conservative cause,” said Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who was among the attendees. “I think Newt was realistic and saying there is a path.”
Still, Kingston added, “He didn't use the word longshot, but it's difficult.”
Gingrich reached the apex of his political strength this primary season when he won South Carolina’s influential primary on Jan. 21.
But in the two months since that point, the ex-speaker, pummeled by negative ads in Florida and succeeding primary states, has seen his support once again hit the bottom. He finished a distant third in Louisiana’s primary; Rick Santorum, who’s assumed the role of Mitt Romney’s chief conservative alternative, won that caucus.
Not having won another primary besides the Super Tuesday contest in Georgia -- the state which elected Gingrich to Congress -- the campaign has struggled to regain any momentum. Gingrich laid off a third of his staff this week and severely curtailed travel, prompting political observers to wonder when he would finally drop out.
“I encouraged him to do what he feels is in his heart he has to do,” said Texas Rep. Michael Burgess, who attended the gathering.
But to hear the members of Congress who attended the meeting describe its outcome, Gingrich appears no closer to ending his candidacy.
“We kind of came to a collective conclusion that there were still some significant goals and objectives that could be achieved by him maintaining his place in the race," said Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, another participant in the meeting.
In addition to Kingston, Burgess and Franks, another seven congress members attended: Reps. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., Austin Scott, R-Ga., Tom Price, R-Ga., Joe Barton, R-Texas, Dan Burton, R-Ind., and Dan Lungren, R-Calif.
The outstanding question now is not whether Newt will be the nominee, but rather, when will he exit the race, and how much collateral damage will have been done to the Republican nominee when Gingrich does drop out.
Those who did attend described a campaign that is realistic that its odds of winning the nomination are especially long. But, unless Romney were to begin regularly steamrolling his primary opponents in upcoming contests, the lawmakers said Gingrich was likely to stay in the race until the May 29 primary in Texas (where he has the endorsement of Gov. Rick Perry), or the primary a week later in California.
“I think the endgame is that we won't know what it's going to be until after Texas,” said one of the Republicans who went to the meeting, who was granted anonymity to speak more candidly about the closed-door huddle.
“I still think he's got a shot in Texas,” added that lawmaker, who noted that the slower pace of forthcoming primaries might allow Gingrich to conserve resources and survive through those contests.
But the former speaker still faces significant hurdles, not least of which was the public warning by Sheldon Adelson -- the casino magnate who’s primarily financed a supportive super PAC -- that Gingrich was “at the end of his line.”
A significant factor in Gingrich’s thinking involves whether his continued presence in the race would harm the party, or even his own political legacy.
Gingrich remains a prominent figure in the conservative movement despite the fizzling of his campaign.
If his candidacy were to stretch to the point where it hurts the party, it could threaten the generosity of conservative donors, on whose largesse Gingrich’s private endeavors sometimes depend.
The speaker’s sense was that if he were to leave the race, the media coverage he’s gained as a candidate would evaporate. By staying in the race, one of the lawmakers present said, Gingrich believes he “would have a great opportunity to drive some planks of the platform,” especially as it relates to some pet issues on health care, science and national security.
But the congressmen also said that Gingrich understood the long odds posed by the math, and described the speaker’s understanding that Santorum’s position in the race has made it difficult to challenge Romney one-on-one.
Moreover, Romney continues to amass delegates and prominent endorsements, most recently on Wednesday from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who said he backed Romney in part to forestall a messy convention fight -- the type Gingrich would need to orchestrate to make good on those long odds of becoming the Republican nominee.
“If you talk to people in the conference, you've got some people who want it over. You've got some people who have people in the race and want to see them do better,” said Westmoreland, a supporter of Gingrich. “Kind of a mixed bag, but I do think it would be nice to have your nominee on the same page as we are with our agenda. Trying to nail that down has been kind of hard.”
“The one thing that is there is, whoever our nominee is, they're going to have 242 people behind him,” he added.
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