ORLANDO, FLORIDA—Newt Gingrich didn't look broken when he stepped up to the podium at the Rosen Centre Hotel's Grand Ballroom last night. "Everybody here has been so positive in every part of the state," he said after ticking off a laundry list of thank-yous. While the event was billed as a "Newt 2012 Victory Party," there was little reason to celebrate. The major networks had all called the Florida primary for Mitt Romney shortly after polls in the western panhandle closed at 8 p.m. But Gingrich—who ended the night with 32 percent of the vote—took the stage with blustery confidence. "[We're] designing and putting together a people's campaign—not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street funded campaign," he said, reprising the populist rhetoric he had rolled out the previous day against "Massachusetts moderate" Mitt Romney, who won 46 percent of the vote in last night's primary.
Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Florida Republican presidential primary night rally, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, in Orlando, Fla.
Supporters sitting in the bleachers behind Gingrich waved signs with the candidate's new slogan: "46 States To Go." By all accounts, Gingrich's victory party in South Carolina was the most raucous of the campaign season to date—it inspired an endless series of blog posts detailing the DJ's music selection. The playlist for yesterday's event, which included Duck Sauce's Barbara Streisand, had clearly been created with the expectation of a packed, jubilant house.
Instead, there were few supporters, and those that were there shuffled about with their heads bowed. Journalists appeared to outnumber Gingrich supporters at the time the primary was called, an imbalance only tipped shortly before Gingrich appeared on stage. Given the results, I at least expected to find everyone lined up at the bar to drown their sorrows, but the crowd was sparse enough that there was rarely a wait to buy a $7.50 glass of wine or a $7.75 Svedka cocktail.
In slim-cut suits, Fergus Ryan, who was visiting from Australia, and Kurt Gunter stood out among the crowd. They both looked like they could have stepped out of the pages of GQ. Gantor, 22, was in fact a local model, though not a Gingrich supporter. "I'm a Ron Paul guy," Gunter said. "I feel like Paul is a little more concerned with taking care of our economic situation." Gunter isn't the standard Paul fan: "Everybody knows he doesn't have a chance," he confessed before saying that Gingrich wasn't a bad second option.
"I follow American politics very closely," Ryan said. "It's fascinating—it seems like Romney's money has beaten Gingrich's ego."
Brothers Alvin and Glenn Rankin, who own a family business, were in town for a hardware convention. They were staying in the same hotel as Gingrich, so they figured they might as well come down and check out the speech. They sounded inclined to support the candidate after expressing disdain for Romney. "Too rich," Alvin said. "I think Gingrich is a little more real than Romney." But their support matters little for the GOP nomination contest: They live in Virginia, where Gingrich failed to meet the signature threshold and will not appear on the ballot next month.
Finding a Florida voter proved challenging. Known for the Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios, Orlando is a tourist town. The only local Newt fans I found were Mike Ferrari, 23, and Melissa Billington, 25, both employees at a "large theme park," as they carefully phrased it. "The things he was able to do in the '90s working in the House and working with executive leadership is promising. It's what we need now," Ferrari said. "We need real work done like welfare reform was done back then." He was solidly in Newt's camp and didn't have much good to say about Romney, but quickly clarified that he would support whomever challenges Barack Obama in the fall.
"I'm getting there. He talks about [Gingrich] a lot," Billington said of her boyfriend.
"If you will tell all of your friends in the other 46 states that there is a chance to nominate a conservative who knows what he's doing, who has done it before, and has the courage and the determination to get it done, then I promise you, if I become president, I pledge to you my life, my fortune and my sacred honor," Gingrich said to close out his speech. He stepped away from the podium and climbed down off the stage to shake voters' hands, which went quickly given that so few supporters came here to hear him speak. The placard outside the ballroom listed the victory rally as scheduled through 11:58 p.m., but the party was over before 10.