TAMPA — When you're Newt Gingrich and you're buried in the back of the pack of GOP presidential candidates, you need to come up with novel ways to draw a crowd.
The former U.S. House speaker hosted a fundraising event Tuesday for the Tampa Bay Young Republicans at Lowry Park Zoo. There were plenty of empty chairs in the auditorium and more than enough cheese and fruit on the buffet table for the 75 or so people who showed up.
No money changed hands. But Gingrich and his wife, Callista, cheerfully mingled with the crowd at the zoo's Safari Lodge after first viewing the resident manatee hospital there, and they encouraged the club photographer to organize a photo line for guests to pose with the couple.
"This is a particular treat for me," said Gingrich, 68, who estimates he has been to 100 zoos since he was a child. "It's a very, very good zoo."
The event also was a chance for the Gingriches to screen their film, A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.
The Gingriches own a production company that makes movies, and they both write and sell books and DVDs. But Gingrich said his candidacy and his business ventures are separate.
"The objective fact is, if I focused commercially on the things Callista and I have done — movies, books, etc. — I'd make vastly more money than running around the country, going to debates and making speeches," Gingrich said. "We made a decision as citizens that we are really, really worried about this country's future."
Tom Chastain, 50, arrived clutching five of Gingrich's books under his arm, including A Contract With America, the manifesto for Gingrich's historic speakership in 1994 during Bill Clinton's presidency.
Chastain, who had index cards to mark the pages he wanted Gingrich to autograph, looked like a schoolboy toting his homework assignments. Like others, he spoke glowingly about Gingrich. But he isn't ready to vote for him for president.
"I like him, because he's got a lot of bright ideas," Chastain said. "But I haven't really made a decision yet."
Danielle Butkus, 28, the secretary of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans and a zoo employee who helped to organize Tuesday's reception, said of Gingrich: "What he has going for him is that he has been a very big political figure for a long time."
But Gingrich is polling in the low single digits, and his candidacy appears to suffer from a huge problem of timing. He's a creature of Washington at a time when many Republicans express visceral disgust for the nation's capital.
And his campaign lost momentum when several aides abandoned ship, claiming he was not taking the rigors of a presidential campaign seriously enough.
But Gingrich presses on with his campaign, focusing on shrinking the size of government, emphasizing faith and national security.
Today, Gingrich plans to attend a town hall meeting in Orlando and a Ronald Reagan tribute dinner in Lake Mary.
Next week, Gingrich will participate in the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency 5 straw poll and debate in Orlando, but he said he will spend no money and that such polls are overrated.
"We're not actively competing, and we're not spending any money on them," Gingrich said. "It has no effect on next year. I think, in that sense, it's not a predictor of anything, but I respect it, and we'll be here."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]