Senior Political Reporter, The Huffington Post
WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich might not get to debate again until Feb. 22, but he won't be totally deprived of high-profile opportunities before then to break out and create some badly needed momentum.
Gingrich's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday afternoon will give the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia the kind of platform that he has previously used to his advantage in the Republican primary. The conference is an annual three-day gathering of roughly 10,000 devoted conservative activists in the nation's capital.
"Next to a debate, CPAC is the best opportunity that Newt would have to make a mark in February," said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union that organizes the conference, in an interview.
Gingrich is likely to need a boost since he is expected to finish behind both GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in the three primary contests on Tuesday. Santorum has a chance to win the Minnesota caucuses, according to the one recent voter survey of that state, and is polling in second place behind Romney in Colorado ahead of the caucuses there Tuesday.
Missouri is holding a nonbinding primary that is purely symbolic on Tuesday, but Gingrich is not on the ballot there and so Santorum will likely point to his absence to argue that he is the true conservative alternative to Romney.
On Friday, Romney and Santorum will give their speeches at the conference, a few hours before Gingrich's. But Gingrich has shown a unique ability during this campaign cycle to tap into the emotions of the conservative grassroots at key moments, in a way that neither Romney or Santorum has been able.
And the event will come at a unique moment in the primary. The results of the Maine primary will be announced the next day, on Feb. 11. But then there is nothing else significant on the calendar between Friday's CPAC event and the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, Ariz. Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries on Feb. 28.
Senior Gingrich adviser Kevin Kellems declined to give specifics about what Gingrich will talk about on Friday. "The message and the messenger will be strong and effective. Stay tuned," Kellems told The Huffington Post.
Given the campaign's lack of planning to date, it's highly unlikely that a speech topic has been nailed down yet. But some of Gingrich's most vocal supporters have indicated that the candidate should regroup after his big loss in Florida last week by moving toward a more positive and substance-based message.
In Florida, "the campaign lacked focus," said conservative author and public affairs consultant Craig Shirley, who is supporting Gingrich while also writing an authorized biography about him. "He needs to sharpen the focus," Shirley told HuffPost. "You shouldn't talk about everything. You should talk about two or three or four things."
Gingrich was all over the map in Florida. He allowed his anger at Romney's overpowering financial edge -- which financed a cascade of negative ads against Gingrich -- to dominate his campaign. Gingrich's message was erratic.
In turn, Romney mocked Gingrich and said he was "flailing."
Gingrich has said he intends to campaign all the way to the convention in August, which will be held in Tampa, Fla., and has cited Ronald Reagan's 1976 primary challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford -- which was decided at the party convention that year -- as his inspiration.
"Reagan lost five straight primaries before he began winning in 1976," Gingrich said after coming in a distant second to Romney in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
But many observers have pointed out that Gingrich's angry demeanor in this campaign has been in contrast to Reagan's sunny optimism and inclusive tone. Shirley, who has written two books about Reagan, said Gingrich needs "a more involving message."
"There is the opportunity in February to -- I hate the phrase retool -- to strike out with a more involving positive message, kind of like he was doing before the savaging in Iowa," Shirley said.
Gingrich was ahead in the polls in Iowa before a barrage of negative ads erased his lead, a dynamic that was then repeated in Florida.
"Hating Obama is not an ideology. Hating Obama is not a governing philosophy," Shirley said, clarifying later that he was referring to the message coming from all the GOP candidates. "There are different ways of taking on both President Obama and Mitt Romney by putting out positive contrast and not negative contrasts."
Gingrich showed a more restrained side on Monday, as he campaigned in Colorado, and he promised on Saturday night "to make a whole series of positive speeches." But he also lamented the state of the modern press -- a familiar refrain for him -- and said substantive policy proposals would not attract the kind of press attention that helps a campaign gain traction.
"I can give hours and hours of positive speeches," Gingrich said. "That doesn't necessarily mean they'll show up anywhere."
Therein lies the rub for Gingrich. He needs to avoid too much negativity and bombast, but he knows that attacks grab attention and sway voters, as the flood of ads against him in Iowa and in Florida showed. And so, without the deep pockets of the Romney campaign, he is left to pursue a strategy of communicating through the very same "elite media" that he often uses as a punching bag.
"I actually think we're a national system in terms of information flow," Gingrich said Saturday. "So I think if I'm on 'Hannity' or if I happen to be in [the] Associated Press, to take an example, or if I'm on one of the networks, or even in the New York Times, then in fact it reaches the whole country."
"So I run a campaign -- which twice now has made me the front-runner, and I suspect will again by the Texas primary or so -- that really is a national campaign," Gingrich said.
The Texas primary is on April 3, but Gingrich is looking more immediately to the March 6 primaries in his adopted home state of Georgia and in Tennessee and Oklahoma for potential wins. He also said Saturday that he will spend three days campaigning in California, which does not hold its primary until June 5.
And there is still room in the Republican primary for a Romney alternative. About 39 percent of Florida Republican primary voters said they were not satisfied with their choices of candidates. Plus, Romney won only 37 percent of the most conservative voters in the first five states to hold caucuses or primaries, compared with Gingrich's 35 percent, Santorum's 17 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul's 9 percent, according to the Washington Times.
Romney has won only about 100 delegates so far. The eventual GOP nominee will need 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination.
Cardenas, who has not endorsed a candidate this election but who was with Romney in 2008 and attended his victory rally in Tampa last Tuesday, said Romney's lead in the primary is because he is winning over "transaction voters."
"There are two reasons to vote for somebody," Cardenas explained. "You're kind of wedded to what their belief system is and to enthusiasm and passion. Or this is more like a transaction for you, and you say, 'Well, I'm a conservative; I want [Obama] out of the White House no matter what, and this is a guy, I think, that will most likely beat him. So I'm not marrying the guy but I'm certainly entering into a transaction here where he gets my vote.'"
"Romney gets the vast majority of transaction voters -- those who are not passionate for one candidate or the other but have a common purpose of beating President Obama," Cardenas said. "That's where his big lead comes from. Now, can he build up the enthusiasm? That stands to be seen."
Romney's CPAC speech, Cardenas said, will be a big moment for him just as much as it will be for Gingrich. "This is probably the best chance he has to make his case with the conservative community," he said.
Clarification: This article has been revised to explain the circumstances of Craig Shirley's comments.