Ted S. Warren / AP
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 | 7:10 p.m.
RENO — Newt Gingrich just suffered a crushing defeat in Florida. He has virtually no campaign organization in Nevada and what little he does have wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders Wednesday.
Despite that, the former House speaker, who has spent much of the campaign on the edge of bombast, drew an overflow crowd Wednesday at a Reno brewery.
Yes, the beer was flowing, and, yes, Renoites have been known to be drawn to such beverages. (At one point, when the sounds system faltered, a man at the back shouted: “It’s alright. We’re all drunk.”)
But many in the crowd were genuinely enthused to see a presidential candidate in their midst.
Constant chants of “Newt! Newt! Newt!” erupted from the crowd, which cheered when he promised to authorize the Keystone Pipeline (an issue with little local appeal), vowed to “dismantle 40 percent” of what the Obama administration has done and criticized the president for “kneeling before a Saudi king.”
The scene in Reno, where scores of people stood in the parking lot after the restaurant filled, was a marked contrast to the tepid crowds that greeted Gingrich in Florida.
The boisterous crowd made an impression on the candidate, who took his campaign bus for a high-profile spin around a local mall before heading out of town.
“When I landed here in the middle of the night, I had no idea Reno would be so hospitable this morning,” Gingrich said.
Still, it was unclear whether the crowd’s enthusiasm was geared toward Gingrich, or the fact a GOP presidential candidate is finally campaigning in the state. Or if it will translate into support at the caucuses Saturday.
Gingrich still lacks a campaign organization in Nevada and is counting on momentum from South Carolina to see him through a state where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the favorite.
But Gingrich’s distant second-place finish in Florida sapped some of his momentum and he has no turnout machine here to fall back on.
One of his campaign volunteers spent the time before Gingrich arrived at the Reno rally imploring the crowd to sign up and volunteer to be Gingrich’s spokespeople at the caucuses.
Gingrich’s rivals, Romney and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, have been oiling their machines for months, recruiting precinct captains, identifying supporters and making sure they get to the caucuses.
Those machines have seen Romney through New Hampshire and Florida.
With the caucuses just three days away, many attended the rally hoping to make a choice in the race.
“I’m trying to figure it out,” said Megan Overton, a Reno Republican who said she plans to caucus on Saturday. “There are things that I like and don’t like about all of them. The person I personally feel most connected to is Rick Santorum. The only reason I’m holding back is I don’t know if enough of the country will back him.
“We need someone with enough money who will fight back and talk loud enough.”
She acknowledged that Gingrich is particularly adept at amplifying his voice above the fray.
The “trying to figure it out” crowd was thick at the Gingrich event.
Bob Hardenbrook, wearing a “Win with Goldwater” button on his baseball cap, said he can’t settle on a favorite among Gingrich, Santorum and Romney. Hardenbrook, 72, was at the Gingrich rally, but didn’t like the Gingrich-supported attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. “I was upset when he ganged up on capitalism,” he said. “I like the fact that Governor Romney has management experience instead of just being in Congress.”
Ann Marie Holley, 49, of Reno held a Gingrich sign, but said she was torn between Gingrich and Romney, not sure which one was better positioned to win in November.
“I’m going to support the Republican who can defeat Obama,” Holley said.
Working for a temp agency for the past year and unable to find full-time employment, she’s frustrated with the Democratic administration, saying it was going down a “socialist” road.
For his part, Gingrich vowed to reform the unemployment benefits system, promising to require anyone receiving benefits to attend a job training program.
“Never again will we pay someone 99 weeks for doing nothing,” he told the cheering crowd.
Later, Gingrich brushed aside the notion that the unemployed in Nevada — with the highest rate in the nation — might be put off by his suggestion they have been “doing nothing.”
“I would say they would be much better off if they had a 99-week training program to give them the skills to go out and find a job,” he said.
Gingrich’s hope is to consolidate the anti-Romney voters.
Andrea Young, of Reno, supported Romney four years ago, but was disappointed when he ceded the race to U.S. Sen. John McCain.
“He bailed way too soon,” Young said. “McCain was such a wimp — Obama has so much baggage that he was too afraid to bring up.”
Gingrich isn’t “afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she said.
Kim Bacchus, of Reno, is also attracted to that perceived toughness. At a time when many Republicans are rebelling against the establishment, Bacchus said Gingrich’s knowledge of Congress makes him the perfect antidote to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, known as a master of process.
“He knows how to combat the political gamesmanship of Harry Reid,” she said, describing Reid as Nevada’s gifted politician.
But it wasn’t Gingrich’s toughness or policy chops that attracted Keith Rush, who enjoyed a pitcher of brew with his friends during the speech. It was Gingrich’s ability to appeal to the “common man.”
“From what I hear, he likes women and he likes to have a drink,” Rush said. “I don’t know if I could share a beer with Romney.”
David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.