For Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, campaigning in Maryland on Tuesday represented something of a political homecoming.
It was nearly 20 years ago that Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, hatched the outlines of the "Contract with America" during a GOP retreat in Salisbury — a campaign pledge that gave his party control of Congress in 1994 and made him a force in American politics.
The former Speaker of the House came to Maryland looking for another political coup: a path to the Republican nomination that by the end of the day seemed increasingly out of reach.
"Governor Romney is the front-runner but is a long way from a majority," Gingrich said during a news conference on the State House grounds in Annapolis, before walking down Main Street for a crab cake at Chick & Ruth's Delly.
In a series of campaign events ahead of Maryland's April 3 primary, Gingrich vowed to continue his nomination bid until Republicans meet in Tampa, Fla., this summer for their convention. He laid out his vision for the U.S. economy and the role of government, and even took a dig at Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed gas tax increase.
But later on a day when new opinion polling indicated that a majority of Republicans think he should drop out of the running, Gingrich took steps to scale back his campaign, which has fallen significantly behind those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
CNN and Politico reported Tuesday that the Gingrich campaign is curtailing its schedule, cutting campaign staff by one-third and replacing its campaign manager as part of what was described as a new strategy heading into the convention.
Gingrich remains a distant third in delegates and has not won a primary since he carried his home state of Georgia on March 6.
"I've been trying to wrestle with what I have not been able to communicate," Gingrich told several hundred students gathered on the Salisbury University campus, where Republican lawmakers once held their annual retreats. "I feel like in a lot of ways in my campaign I got sucked into normal politics, which is frankly in large part a waste of time."
Gingrich began his day in Annapolis, where he took a tour of the State House and was recognized on the floor of the state Senate — among the most liberal chambers in the nation. As he left, Gingrich briefly encountered O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who were entering for a ceremony.
Gingrich, who has put a promise of $2.50-a-gallon gasoline front and center in his campaign, said O'Malley's proposed gas tax "shows as much political insensitivity as you can imagine" and is "very, very anti-working American."
Six in 10 Republicans surveyed say Gingrich should drop out of the race, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday. A majority of Republican respondents also said Texas Rep. Ron Paul should end his bid for the nomination. Romney's support improved slightly, increasing 4 percentage points since February, to 36 percent.
But while Gingrich's campaign has lagged in polls, his supporters in Annapolis greeted him as though he were leading the pack.
"I'm very happy to see him here," said Del. Susan L.M. Aumann of Baltimore County, a Gingrich delegate. "It's nice that Maryland's being recognized as a valuable state in this process of democracy."
Maryland, which offers 37 delegates, has received more attention than usual from presidential candidates this year. Romney, by far the most organized in the state, campaigned in Arbutus last week and is running an ad on television statewide.
Paul will speak at the University of Maryland, College Park on Wednesday. Santorum was initially expected Tuesday, but campaigned in Wisconsin instead.
After leaving the State House, Gingrich strolled down Main Street, dropping in for a brief visit at a jewelry store owned by Republican Del. Ron George of Annapolis. From there he worked his way along the street, shaking hands and greeting supporters until he reached Chick & Ruth's.
Owner Teddy Levitt briefed Gingrich on the colorful history of the eatery, where sandwiches are named for the luminaries of Maryland politics. Levitt told him about the restaurant's tradition of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance each morning since 1989.
Levitt recommended the crab cake but offered corned beef as an alternative.
"Crab is great," Gingrich said before sitting down to lunch with a group of Republicans that included state party Chairman Alex X. Mooney and Del. Warren E. Miller of Howard County, who is co-chair of the Gingrich campaign in Maryland and organized the day's events.
Gingrich then went to Salisbury, where he visited the city zoo before arriving at Salisbury University. He spoke for about an hour, sprinkling historical anecdotes throughout an address that emphasized the importance of natural gas as a route to energy independence, investing in medical research on the brain, partly privatizing Social Security and reducing the size of the federal government.
Gingrich reaffirmed his commitment to a robust U.S. space program, but said he'd prefer to see the money come from the private sector rather than from government spending on facilities such as the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
"There's no reason for this country to have any significant problems," he told the students. "They're almost all an artifact of a really bad governing structure and a really incompetent bureaucratic system."
Gingrich chose to campaign Tuesday in settings that are not necessarily politically friendly territory. Maryland's General Assembly, for instance, has in the past year advanced same-sex marriage legislation and a bill allowing illegal immigrants to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates. And it is considering hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases.
Gingrich faced tough questions in Salisbury, where at least a few of the students turned out despite not being supporters.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," joked Jessica Barr, a 19-year-old from Baltimore County who said she heard about the event from a political science professor.
Eric Mears, a 21-year-old Republican from Rockville, said he was impressed by Gingrich's focus on the issues.
"He offered a lot of actual reasonable solutions," the Salisbury junior said. "Up to this point, I really haven't heard a lot of solutions."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun