TAMPA, Fla. – To his own goodbye party, the speaker wore black – with a red Republican tie.
“Thank you for being here,” he said to a quiet crowd of about 100 on Monday morning in a hotel ballroom. “I’m Newt Gingrich.”
A few months ago, Gingrich was used to bigger crowds. There was one screaming for him in South Carolina, when the former House speaker beat Mitt Romney in the Republican primary. “People power, with the right ideas, beats big money!” he said then.
Gingrich won only one more state.
But one of the few virtues of modern conventions is that they allow defeated candidates – in exchange for pledges of loyalty to the victor – to stage-manage their own exits.
Ron Paul got his chance Sunday. Rick Santorum went Tuesday. For Gingrich, the ritual began Monday, with “Newt University.”
With his presidential moment officially ending, Gingrich took another trash-talking, Lincoln-quoting, moon-mentioning turn as his party’s idea man.
“We tell the truth less effectively than Democrats lie,” he said as class came to order. This was the first of four Newt U sessions designed to fix that, by teaching GOP delegates to tell the truth as well as Gingrich himself. “We want a fact-based campaign,” he said.
This is the moment for goodbyes: early in the convention, before the spotlight shifts to Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
This year, it is Gingrich’s turn: Newt U marks his symbolic transition back to what he was, a hero from the party’s history with little power in its present. Gingrich, 69, has led seminarlike classes at past conventions during a career that has seen two startling successes and two self-destructions.
Gingrich led the “revolution” that took the House in 1994. Then he left the House in 1999 after alienating colleagues and fighting ethics allegations.
Monday, the former history professor began Newt U with a name-dropping talk that was 180-proof Gingrich. In a 16-minute speech, he cited Margaret Thatcher, Alexis de Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
Gingrich, who famously proposed a moon colony in front of a crowd in Florida, also praised the Apollo space program. He used the buildup to the moon landing as a metaphor for the capability of the American people.
“We innovated every day” back then, Gingrich said. Now, he said, he wanted the same innovative spirit directed at a different goal: “And so, part of the [current] question is, ‘How do we get to a smaller government?’?”
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, will speak Thursday night at the convention, but before the networks tune in.