ORLANDO, Fla. — Can Newt Gingrich come back a third time?
If he loses Tuesday in Florida's primary — polls predict he will —Gingrich will spend the next month trying to prove the answer is yes.
"We were dead in June and July . but we came roaring back and we will again," Gingrich said at a rally Monday in Tampa.
Still, the former House speaker, who has pledged to fight on until the GOP convention this summer, faces a tough road out of Florida. He plunges next into a scattershot series of state contests where he has little organization and must overcome steep odds to win.
Gingrich was hoping to ride a wave of enthusiasm to a win in Florida and beyond, stoked by his decisive victory in South Carolina. But unless he pulls off an upset win Tuesday, he will have squandered that momentum heading into states that look favorable for leading rival Mitt Romney.
After being battered by the well-funded Romney political machine, the Gingrich campaign will redouble its efforts to "tell the truth about Romney faster and more efficiently than he can lie about us," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
The calendar works against Gingrich rebounding anytime soon. After a steady march through four state contests in January, the pace quickens before taking a long breather next month.
There are seven elections in February, which kicks off with Nevada's caucuses Saturday. That will be followed by contests next week in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine as well as a non-binding primary in Missouri. A 17-day break will be capped by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.
The schedule benefits a candidate, like Romney, with deep pockets and a sophisticated ground game able to compete on multiple fronts at once. Gingrich, who failed to even get on the ballot in his home state of Virginia for the March 6 Super Tuesday primary, is playing catch-up.
"We're behind the eight-ball," acknowledged George Harris, a Las Vegas restaurant owner who serves as a national finance chair for Gingrich and is helping his efforts in Nevada.
Romney has had staff in the state since June and has already begun running ads there. And he's a known quantity in the state, having won it when he sought the GOP nomination in 2008.
Gingrich dispatched six staffers to Nevada just days ago and they have rapidly built the operation from the ground up.
Maine is in the former Massachusetts governor's back yard and, in a show of force, he has 40 state legislators backing him. Another candidate, Ron Paul, also has a strong network of support in the state, a holdover from his 2008 presidential run.
Gingrich aides are aiming to hang on.
"We're getting a late start here," said John Grooms, Gingrich's grassroots director in Maine, who until December was backing Herman Cain. "The goal here is to have a good, respectable showing."
Romney grew up in Michigan and is still looked at as something of favorite son among Republicans in the state.
Romney claimed both Colorado and Michigan in 2008 and maintains networks in each state.
Just 10 days ago, an ebullient Gingrich touched down in Florida, fresh off his win in South Carolina and drawing cheering crowds of thousands. It was a far different tone as he wrapped up his campaign Monday with a lap around the state. Crowds were far sparser, and although Gingrich kept up the attacks on Romney, he sometimes sounded tired as he raced from Jacksonville to Pensacola to Fort Myers.
The Gingrich camp sought to put a positive spin on what is expected to be a disappointing showing in Florida, where the winner will scoop up all 50 delegates.
A memo from Gingrich political director Martin Baker made the case that moving forward, delegates will be awarded proportionally, meaning that even if Romney racks up wins the delegate count could remain tight so long as the races are competitive.
Baker noted that no matter who wins Florida, only 5 percent of the 2,288 national convention delegates will have been awarded.
"The campaign is shifting to a new phase where opportunities are not limited to a single state," Baker wrote.
Gingrich aides also said they had succeeded in effectively making the race a two-man contest, with Gingrich surviving as the conservative alternative to Romney. Rick Santorum, who had been splitting the conservative vote with Gingrich, is trailing badly in Florida.
Gingrich's prospects improve when the race sweeps back South on Super Tuesday. The Bible Belt is his sweet spot and his onetime home state of Georgia is in the mix with its 76 delegates.
"The math doesn't get better for us until much later in the game," Hammond acknowledged.
Gingrich will have to survive until then. He fought his way back into the GOP race last year after his top aides resigned en masse in the spring. He rallied again in South Carolina after a barrage of attack ads knocked him from front-runner status in Iowa.
Harris, in Nevada, says a repeat won't be impossible.
"The thing I love about Newt is that he's a fighter," he said. "Every time you think you've knocked him down he gets back up and knocks you in the face."
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