BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Newt Gingrich took to the stage in a half-empty hotel ballroom on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama to hail a dramatic night that had changed everything. It was "quite an evening", he declared.
The Deep South results meant that "we're going to leave Alabama and Mississippi with a substantial number of delegates, increasing our total going towards Tampa" and "a much bigger delegation than we had yesterday".
Again and again he stated that he would be going all the way to the Tampa convention. "I emphasise going to Tampa because one of the things tonight proved is that the elite media’s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable has just collapsed."
Newt Gingrich, with his wife Callista, speaks in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: Toby Harnden.
Having taken his shots at the elite media, he then name-checked Holman Jenkins and Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal.
Taking aim at Romney again, Gingrich said that "in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote and if you're the front runner and you keep coming in third you're not much of a frontrunner" at all.
"Frankly, I do not believe that a Massachusetts moderate who created Romneycare as the forerunner of Obamacare is going to be in a position to win any debates this fall and that's one of the reasons I've insisted on staying in this race.
"We need someone can go toe to toe with Barack Obama and debate him and win the debates decisively."
The problem is his self-important rhetoric is so far removed from reality that calling it delusional seems like an understatement.
Describing himself, Gingrich said: "I believe we need a visionary leader who is prepared to talk about a dramatically different future with dramatically more jobs, dramatically more energy and a much safer and stronger America. That's the key to winning in the fall. Not all this petty baloney but the really big choices."
Except that the voters do not believe he is such a person - if they thought he was another Ronald Reagan, they'd have made that clear at the ballot box.
Less than a week ago, Gingrich’s own campaign said that Alabama and Mississippi were "must wins" for him. He not only lost in his native Deep South but he lost to the man who he’s been competing with to be the "anti-Romney" candidate. Gingrich has now finished behind Santorum in 20 of the 24 states where they've both been on the ballot.
Thus far, Gingrich has won two states compared to Romney’s 14 and Santorum’s 10. The total delegates won by Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul is still below Romney's 500+.
Even Gingrich now acknowledges that it was now impossible for him to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
His strategy for victory – such as it is - is essentially one of sabotage: making common cause with Santorum to stop Romney and then somehow emerge from the wreckage and chaos at Tampa as the nominee.
Quite how he squares his notion of his "people's campaign" winning because of grubby back-room deals in Tampa after finishing second, at best, among the voters is difficult to fathom.
After his Birmingham speech, Gingrich advisers floated the idea of a Gingrich-Santorum alliance that would "have the capability to deny Governor Romney the nomination" and "be a powerful team against Barack Obama".
Speaking on the Rick and Bubba radio show earlier in the day, Gingrich had said: "With Rick and me together, we are really slowing him down, with some help frankly from Ron Paul. The country is sort of saying, a majority is saying, 'Not Romney'. The biggest bloc is saying Romney, but it's not a big enough bloc to be a majority. We now are beginning to think he will literally not be able to get the delegates to get the nomination."
Back in South Carolina, Gingrich had called on Santorum to drop out. He's consistently belittled Santorum as a second-rater. Does he really think Santorum would suddenly choose him as a vice-presidential running mate?
If Romney didn't get the 1,144 and went to Tampa with Santorum in second place, a Romney-Santorum ticket would be much more likely. And don't forget that Ron Paul enjoys warm relations with Romney - they could well form an alliance.
Romney still holds nearly all the cards. The Deep South losses were a disappointment but a week ago no one gave him a prayer in either state. He won all nine delegates in American Samoa and was expected to win Hawaii comfortably - which means that he extended his delegate lead despite the headlines Santorum has grabbed.
In the only four winner-take-all contests to come - the District of Columbia (where Santorum is not on the ballot), Delaware, New Jersey and Utah - Romney is very well placed to win.
Of course, winning elections is about inspiring people and not just "delegate math". Romney spoke about winning delegates when he was in Mobile, Alabama yesterday and on CNN today. He needs to stop that and leave the minutiae to his staff. He needs also to be a little more gracious towards Santorum - on CNN today he spoke of the "desperate end' of Santorum's campaign.
But Romney enjoys powerful advantages in money and organisation and his economic message and business background is a much better fit for the general election against President Barack Obama than Santorum's faith-based world view.
In the coming days, Gingrich will come under fierce pressure from conservative Republicans to bow out graciously. His case in Birmingham that "the fact that I want to talk about substance is what makes this campaign different from other campaigns and is the reason we're going to go all the way to Tampa to compete for the nomination" is unlikely to cut much ice.
His reckless determination to provoke a big fight at Tampa shows that he puts his own ego far ahead of his party's interests. Whatever the justified conservative criticisms of Romney, opinon polls show he has every chance of defeating Obama in November.
It's hard, however, to see how a contested convention could help any Republican nominee win in November. It's just as difficult to see how Santorum would have a chance of defeating Romney if Gingrich stays in and continues to split the conservative vote.
But to a candidate whose campaign has been based largely on self-delusion, such realities seem not to matter.