ATLANTA — His presidential campaign on life support, Newt Gingrich ran into the county coroner at a recent tea party event in South Carolina.
"I'm not here because you're looking ill or anything," Rae Wooten assured the former U.S. House speaker at Tuesday's event in North Charleston. A chuckling Gingrich feigned relief.
For the embattled White House candidate who's seen by some as a dead man walking in the crowded Republican field, the encounter may have hit a bit close to home.
His aides and advisers resigned en masse in early June. His first campaign finance disclosure report, filed Friday, provided little reason to be optimistic. It showed that Gingrich had raised $2.1 million since getting into the race, badly trailing the front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
He had a little more than $1 million in debt, almost half of that for private air travel.
Gingrich's campaign remains a skeleton operation. He has not moved to replace most of the consultants and staff members who left. His operations in early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina rely on volunteers rather than paid staff.
"I don't view him as a serious candidate and frankly I don't know anyone who does view him as a serious candidate," said Tom Perdue, a Republican strategist from Gingrich's old home state of Georgia.
"It's not uncommon for a candidate to become delusional and that's what I think you are seeing here."
Gingrich argues that the kind of grass-roots, Internet-driven campaign he wants to run can function with a lean staff and that he doesn't need a stable of well-paid consultants to launch the attack ads of a more traditional effort.
"I am very different than normal politicians, and normal consultants found that very hard to deal with," Gingrich said during an appearance in Atlanta last month. He outlined a strategy that he contended would allow him to continue to plug away at issues while the other candidates beat up each other and, inevitably, fumble.
Gingrich's tactic: Be the last candidate standing.
Gingrich casts himself as the one in the race who has the experience of dealing with the big issues such as the economy.
Still, for all his decades in politics, Gingrich has seemed something of a long shot to win the nomination. He carries heavy personal baggage, including three marriages and an admission of adultery, into a primary where evangelical voters hold powerful sway.
His reputation as headstrong and undisciplined came into sharp focus almost immediately after he entered the race for president as he careened through a series of missteps (seeming to back an individual health care mandate that is anathema in his party) and embarrassing revelations (a huge revolving loan account at luxury jeweler Tiffany's).
Then, just as the GOP race seemed to be heating up, he disappeared with his wife, Callista, for a planned cruise off the Greek islands, leading some to believe he wasn't taking the race seriously.
He has pledged to stay in the race.
Gingrich was in Iowa Friday and aides say he expects to spend more time in the state in coming weeks, even as he plans to skip the Iowa straw poll later this summer that had at one point been seen as a key part of his campaign there.
Shannon McCaffrey can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/smccaffrey13