Friday, Feb. 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It might seem strange that the candidate sponsored by Nevada’s deepest-pocketed political donor is casting his campaign as the scrappy underdog in the Silver State.
That, however, is how Newt Gingrich tried to distinguish his campaign from Mitt Romney’s Thursday.
“We’re really running with people power versus money power,” Gingrich told a crowd assembled at the Xtreme Manufacturing plant in Las Vegas.
It was a good line for the venue — a warehouse of a forklift manufacturer — and the day — Romney accepted an endorsement from pop culture’s most recognizable rich man, Donald Trump.
But there was a problem with the picture: Gingrich hasn’t been mingling with the people he says are the backbone of his campaign — at least not in Southern Nevada.
On Thursday morning, 15 minutes past the scheduled start time for Gingrich’s rally at Xtreme, the warehouse was noticeably empty, with only about 75 assembled in the cold, cavernous room.
A few minutes later, crowds started to pour in, upping the assembly to over 300 — thanks to last-minute mobilizing of the facility’s employee pool.
“It was at Don Ahern’s request,” said one employee — Ahern owns Xtreme and introduced Gingrich — who like many in the newly arrived crowd, wasn’t a registered Republican, wasn’t really frustrated with President Barack Obama’s leadership and didn’t cheer for Gingrich while he spoke.
The employee did sport a “Newt 2012” sticker though. “Eh, I’ll put it on. This is America, after all,” he said.
Gingrich didn’t find many more fans at his next stop: An invite-only roundtable with local Hispanic leadership, most of them uncommitted. Press outnumbered attendees.
He held no public events the rest of the day: Gingrich spent the afternoon and evening working the phones for potential big-money donors, according to his spokesman, and attended an in-town fundraiser to raise the cash he’ll need to keep running against Romney.
Some of the ideas Gingrich spoke about Thursday rang more like national talking points torqued to fit a Las Vegas audience instead of ideas born from careful observation of people and their problems on the ground. For instance, Gingrich’s first job-creating pitch to Las Vegans — before he got to freeing up federal lands — was to approve plans for a pipeline whose closest pass-point is over a thousand miles away.
“The Keystone pipeline means jobs right here in Las Vegas ... with you supplying the contractors who are going to build the pipeline,” he told the crowd of manufacturers, many of them long-term Las Vegans.
Gingrich also referenced Nevada’s unemployment crisis — but he focused on jobless teenagers, 32 percent of whom in Nevada are out of work, as a reason to oppose a minimum wage, instead of the livelihoods of the adult Nevadans providing for those teenagers.
On housing and health care, Gingrich strikes the same chord as most of his opponents: Repeal Obamacare, repeal Dodd-Frank, repeal Sarbanes-Oxley, free up federal land.
Where he stands apart is on immigration: Gingrich doesn’t want to deport longtime illegal residents from the United States, and supports the part of the Dream Act that makes citizenship possible for those who serve in the military — a position that’s opened doors for him with the Hispanic Republican community.
But while immigration may be the issue on which he’s most in tune with the needs of Nevada’s population, it’s not popular with the popular movement Gingrich’s campaign wants to turn out for this election.
“Our job is to win the nomination; in Nevada, our job is to turn out the Tea Party in droves, to show that conservatives are not behind Mitt Romney,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said Thursday morning, dismissing the suggestion that Sharron Angle’s endorsement of Rick Santorum complicated that goal.
Other Tea Party activists agree — Sharron Angle’s endorsement isn’t about Nevada.
“Maybe not in Nevada ... but I think around the country, (Angle’s) endorsement will have a positive impact,” said Jeri Taylor-Swade, a close friend of Angle’s and co-leader of T.R.U.N.C., a Tea Party group based in Las Vegas. “Even if (Santorum) doesn’t win Nevada, Sharron’s endorsement will help nationwide.”
But while the few Tea Party activists who turned out to see Gingrich Thursday morning had kind words for him, they were only a handful.
“I think he is the most intelligent of the candidates, and I think he has the most experience in the system,” said Patsy Roumanos, who leases and sells mobile offices in Las Vegas.
But Linda Loveland, a Las Vegas accountant who calls herself a conservative, still has concerns.
“I am totally against mudslinging in this, and I am hoping to see a high road [from Gingrich],” she said, noting the negative tone of his campaign. “I think it was a defensive posture, but it’s time to go forward with what is it you’re going to do, not anything about the other candidates.”
Gingrich isn’t expected to pull out a win in Nevada, but he has committed to stay in the race. Aside from money, that will take delegates, which the Gingrich campaign is counting closely: They’re challenging the distribution of delegates in Florida’s winner-take-all primary.
But some of his supporters are concerned that as he fights for dollars and delegates, he’s getting unfocused and losing what was his strongest suit: an ability to connect with voters.
“Gingrich is my choice ... When he gets on message, which is his policy and philosophy, he has the ability to implement, to sit down and get something done,” said David Phillips, a Las Vegas-based flight engineer. “He’s got to get back on message ... he needs to be told that. And that’s why I’m here today — I’ll shake his hand, and tell him what I just said.”