Posted: March 27, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Newt Gingrich is the first to bring the presidential campaign to Delaware. Joe Biden does not count. He lives here.

Gingrich spoke Monday evening at the Hockessin fire hall, about a month before something of an Atlantic primary when Delaware votes on April 24 along with Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

A couple of pretty big states are in there, so when a candidate makes an effort to show this little one some attention, it returns the favor. Gingrich got himself a crowd of about 400 people.

It was quite a lot for someone bumping along in a woebegone third place for the Republican nomination, behind Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum with only the outlier Ron Paul for company. Still, it was befitting a political prophet who delivered the House of Representatives to his party back in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

The Delaware Republicans, who are not doing so well themselves these days, rolled out everything they could in welcome. Tom Wagner, the state auditor, and Janet Rzewnicki, once the state treasurer, were there. So was John Sigler, the state chair.

Ditto for Greg Lavelle, the state House minority leader who is the party's vice chair, Priscilla Rakestraw, the national committeewoman, and Laird Stabler, the national committeeman, even though they are all backing Romney. Sometimes Delaware is still Delaware.

"Let's get our primary started!" said Lavelle, as he warmed up the crowd.

The truth is, Gingrich and Delaware could use the attention from each other. Word of Gingrich's visit came Friday, right before he was about to get pounded in the Louisiana primary Saturday, like some kind of marker he was laying down to show he intended to be in the race a month from now.

It is a cinch that Delaware with its little band of 17 delegates will be won only by someone who comes here. It has been that way since the state switched to a primary from a caucus in 1996 and the Republican voters defiantly went for Steve Forbes instead of Bob Dole, the party favorite. Attention must be paid.

Gingrich already has had some modest success here. He won a straw poll in December, when he was surging nationally, but he could have asked Michele Bachmann what that was worth. She won the Iowa straw poll, which gets news coverage like it matters, but got bounced by the first-in-the-nation caucus when it really did.

Gingrich picked up an endorsement of note Monday evening from Colin Bonini, a state senator who ran for treasurer in 2010.

"I'm a total Newt guy. Newt is a guy who understands that big ideas matter. I'm a big ideas guy. Newt accomplished something in the '90s that proved that a common sense conservative can rise to the top," Bonini said in an interview.

Not there for Gingrich, however, were the two most prominent Delawareans with past ties to him.

Mike Castle, the ex-congressman who was in the House when Gingrich was the speaker, is with Romney. Pete du Pont, the ex-governor, is not with Gingrich, either, even though du Pont bequeathed GOPAC, a Republican political action committee he formed to back legislative candidates nationwide, to Gingrich as du Pont prepared for a presidential run in 1988 himself.

The Delaware Democrats did their best to turn Gingrich's visit to their own purposes. They put out a press release daring the Republicans' leading statewide candidates to associate themselves with Gingrich, whom they characterized as "one of these extreme Republican contestants."

Jeff Cragg, the Republican running for governor, took the dare and showed up.

"Newt's a Republican, and I'm a Republican, and I'm supportive of Republican presidential candidates coming to Delaware," Cragg said in an interview.

The crowd, living resignedly in a Democratic blue state, seemed eager to have some Newtron bombs heaved at the president and his party. Guaranteed, Gingrich could have gotten everyone going with even the slightest shot at Biden.

Instead, Gingrich opened like a professor, which he once was, giving a tutorial on energy policy. It was so serious, it sounded like there might be homework.

"Getting to an American energy system is an imperative of national security," Gingrich said.

The crowd was polite. Next it stirred as Gingrich promised them he could get gas prices to $2.50 a gallon as president. Then it applauded and cheered when he went on the attack against Obama and green energy. Finally!

"They're desperately trying to avoid having sufficient energy, because if you have sufficient energy, you'll be able to drive anything you want. They don't want you to drive anything you want. They want you to drive what they want," he said.

"If you go to work, and you earn money, and it's your money, you should be allowed to have the lifestyle you want, driving the vehicle you want on your terms, and not being dictated to by the politicians in Washington," he continued.

"If you'll help me in three weeks in your primary and I end up as your nominee, I will look forward to debating him. I believe we can tell the truth better than they can lie."

It was grand. It was powerful. Then came the offer that Gingrich would pose for a picture with anyone for 50 bucks, just line up along the wall, and by the way, would people please go to his Web site and contribute, even if it was just the equivalent of a gallon of Newt gas at $2.50?

It was not grand. It was not powerful. What a man will do to keep alive a flickering run for president.