Five minutes before midnight, just as Mitt Romney wrapped up his victory speech in Iowa, Newt Gingrich's charter plane made its way across the windswept runway of the Des Moines airport and jetted off into the sky.
On board: 30 passengers, including Gingrich, his wife and members of the press, riding the two hour and 14 minute flight to Manchester at the speed of darkness.
Light chatter could be heard throughout the cabin as the flight attendant drew the curtains between reporters and first class; there would be little restful sleep that night.
"Together we survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary," Gingrich said earlier to a half-empty room of 100 supporters in downtown Des Moines.
Early results indicated the one-time frontrunner would come in a distant fourth place at 13 percent and it was at that percentage point he stubbornly remained throughout the night. Whether or not there’s a fourth ticket out of Iowa, Gingrich’s parting words to the people there teed up the New Hampshire strategy he’s counting on to effort an unlikely nomination.
In his speech he congratulated Ron Paul for his third place finish but blasted the Texas congressman for being weak on foreign policy. Most importantly, he left his choicest words for Mitt Romney, who has a wide lead in New Hampshire and is expected to win the primary.
Gingrich told the audience that voters have yet to decide “whether this party wants a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and helped change Washington in the 1990s as speaker of the House” or whether “we want a Massachusetts (moderate) who, in fact, will be pretty good at managing the decay but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any act to change the culture or change the political structure or change the government."
Wednesday morning, New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper subscribers were waking up to find a full-page ad bought by the Gingrich campaign -- their effort to draw a bright line of contrast between a "bold Reagan conservative" and a "timid Massachusetts moderate."
The former speaker, whose star plummeted amid negative ads in Iowa, told his supporters that in The Granite State, "We’re not going to go out and run nasty ads. We’re not going to run 30-second 'gotchas.' But I do reserve the right to tell the truth."
Gingrich has a sizable ground operation in New Hampshire, with 15 paid staffers operating out of five offices, 99 city captains and 10 county captains. But whereas in Iowa, organization was key to rallying the 122,255 people who ultimately turned out to caucus, New Hampshire has historically been a state where advertising and momentum play a larger role in influencing the final tally -- requiring money and traction of which Gingrich does not have a lot.
Nevertheless, this first-in-the-nation primary state has a track record of upsetting frontrunners. Time is of the essence, and it’s unclear if the campaign will be able to defy the odds. With less than 15 members of the press aboard a plane able to seat 162 passengers, the process of getting the reporters back to their hotels at 4 a.m. ET proved to be a disorganized process, with passengers deplaning in Manchester and following their bags held hostage in a van 20 miles away in Concord.
It not only tested the tempers of those in the press corps, it was also a reminder that it will take a lot more than the "earned media" strategy which Gingrich has depended on for so long to get him anywhere close to a win.