More than 1,000 people for a Town Hall meeting with Newt Gingrich. The 660-seat auditorium was over capacity, with 80 extra seats added on stage and another 300 jammed into an overflow room. And that doesn’t take into account those who were turned away.
It was one of the largest crowds for a campaign event in New Hampshire this year – perhaps the largest. And it was yet another sign that Mitt Romney should be worried.
“That’s a semi-presidential crowd,” said Pat Griffin, a senior fellow at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “The Romney folks are understandably a bit out of sorts now."
From the start, Romney was the favorite to win the New Hampshire Primary, but with less than four weeks to go, political analysts say it’s looking more and more likely that we could see a repeat of 2008, when Romney led throughout before losing to a surging John McCain.
“Clearly, last night’s event in Windham shows there’s a lot of pent up interest and demand in Newt Gingrich here in New Hampshire,” said Rich Killion, a political consultant and managing partner of Elevare Communications. “It’s just a tangible expression of the momentum he has generated. At this stage, any campaign would kill for that.”
“It was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen, if not the biggest,” added University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, who was one of those relegated to the overflow room on Monday. “It’s something Romney’s got to keep an eye on. On primary night, it’s places like Windham that could tell us whether it’s close or if Romney’s going to win it going away.”
Jeffrey Diggins of Auburn, Gingrich's Rockingham County co-captain, said the mood on Monday night was upbeat, and people were excited to see Gingrich speak.
“There was a swelling of support for him. That’s nice to see,” he said. “What he’s saying is resonating with the people of New Hampshire.”
Andrew Hemingway, Gingrich's New Hampshire campaign director, said the packed house at the Windham event is evidence "that the surge is real... it was a really positive sign and we all left excited about the possibilities, the potential of winning the primary."
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released last month put Gingrich in second place in the Granite State at 15 percent, a dramatic increase from polls in July and October, which had him at 1 and 4 percent, respectively.
That’s still way behind Romney, who was in first place at 42 percent in the November poll. But that poll was also released before the Union Leader endorsed Gingrich, which gave his surging campaign another boost.
“In that UNH poll, it certainly looked as if it was a forecast of a Gingrich surge,” Scala said. “You look at the conservative candidates, and Gingrich was the only one on the rise. Voters had a look at (Rick) Perry, (Herman) Cain and (Michele) Bachmann, and had soured on all three of them. Gingrich was the only one they soured on early, but now at least they’re giving him a second thought.”
Some observers see parallels between what’s happening with Gingrich now and what happened with McCain four years ago, when he roared back to defeat Romney in the New Hampshire Primary on his way to the Republican presidential nomination.
“They both had the good fortune to crash first,” Scala said. “Both had time to make a comeback and really to watch others fail and then to get that second chance. The lesson from both is sometimes it’s better to fail early.”
The major difference, he said, is that McCain had a base of supporters here that Gingrich doesn’t.
Killion doesn’t see a direct correlation between McCain in 2008 and Gingrich now, but he does see some similarities.
“Just in terms of rising again,” he said. “Once they were both perceived dead, nobody paid them any attention. That allowed all the large volume of negative things being said about them at the time to completely dissipate. There is a blessing to that.”
Both McCain and Gingrich also got second chances not because of anything they did, but because of the failings of their opponents.
“John McCain’s rise in New Hampshire was a factor of Rudy Giuliani completely falling flat on his face and leaving New Hampshire, and leaving a large block of votes sitting out there for a viable alternative,” Killion said. “If Rudy Giuliani stayed in New Hampshire and got the 20-something percent of the vote he would have gotten by running a quasi-competent campaign, the McCain comeback story would have never been written.
“If Tim Pawlenty had a viable campaign in this state, if Rick Perry didn’t self mutilate himself in those debates in September and October, they both would have sizable vote shares in this state right now and would have sucked out a large amount of the oxygen and prevented the kindling that let Newt take off.”
Griffin said he thinks it’s entirely possible – even probable – that either Ron Paul or Gingrich will win Iowa, and then Gingrich will continue surging and overtake Romney in New Hampshire.
“The trajectory on Newt Gingrich is heading toward a win here,” he said. “If that’s the case, you’ve got a very, very problematic situation for Romney.”
Scala said it would take a combination of factors for Gingrich to beat Romney in New Hampshire.
“I think it would take a clear win in Iowa, and the big surge in momentum that follows, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt Gingrich if he had (Jon) Huntsman surging in the last week," he said. “That would be the one-two punch for Romney – Gingrich surging and Huntsman finally cashing in on all the time he’s spent in New Hampshire. That would put Gingrich over the top. It would probably take both for that to happen."
Griffin, who moderated , said he doesn’t see the sometimes volatile Gingrich imploding, as some have predicted. He said the former House Speaker has shown great discipline, and he doesn’t see that changing.
“Romney's got lots of money, lots of people for him, and every endorsement in the world," Griffin said. "It doesn’t matter – when you have an insurgent campaign that becomes a movement, and that’s what’s happened with Newt, it’s very hard to deny voters access to the rock star, and Newt’s the rock star right now.”