Newt Gingrich campaigns Friday in Las Vegas, the day before losing the Nevada caucuses to Mitt Romney.
Getty Images
Newt Gingrich campaigns Friday in Las Vegas, the day before losing the Nevada caucuses to Mitt Romney.

Story highlights

David Frum: After a trouncing in Nevada, Newt Gingrich faces dwindling options

Frum: No debates are coming up soon; Gingrich's financial backer wavering in support

Gingrich doesn't really win if he hangs in or makes a deal with Mitt Romney, Frum says

But if Romney loses, Gingrich can say "told you so," and gain influence, he says

Editor’s Note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of six books, including “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”

Washington CNN —  

After a bad defeat in the Nevada caucuses, the options dwindle for former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has benefited in the past from game-changing debates, but there is no debate on the calendar for two weeks.

The voting calendar looks equally ugly for Gingrich. Republicans have three contests Tuesday: caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, and a nonbinding primary in Missouri. Gingrich is not even on the ballot in Missouri, and caucuses favor the better-organized Romney campaign. Maine finishes its caucuses on February 11, meaning, most likely, more bad news for Gingrich.

Not until February 28 is there another primary that Gingrich might hope to win: Arizona. (Michigan, a Romney stronghold, also votes February 28.)

David Frum
Chuck Kennedy
David Frum

Meanwhile, Gingrich’s most important financial backer is signaling that he may well have reached the limit of his generosity.

The New York Times reported Saturday that billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who has been supporting Gingrich’s presidential bid, has told Romney that “he will provide even more generous support to his candidacy if he becomes the Republican nominee.” Adelson’s “affection for and loyalty to Mr. Gingrich have not blinded him to the reality that the nominating contest is tilting in Mr. Romney’s favor,” according to the Times.

So what does Gingrich do next?

He has three main options:

Option 1: Fight to the bitter end, money or no money.

Option 2: Try to make a deal now, in hope of gaining something in exchange from the Romney campaign – a speaking slot at the convention, some kind of advisory role in a Romney administration.

Pretty obviously, neither of those options leads anywhere good. Option 1 could rapidly lead to public humiliation, Option 2 to lingering private humiliation.

Which leaves Option 3:

Retire quietly from the field, no deal, and hope that Romney loses in November and that Gingrich can then claim the “told you so” rights of the party elder statesman over the next four years.

If Romney wins, what future does Gingrich have, really?

But if he loses, Gingrich can fill the hours on Fox with messages conservatives will want to hear:

• We lost because we nominated a moderate.

• I was the real conservative in the race. Had the party nominated me, I would have pummeled Obama in the debates and won the election.

• Next time, listen to me!

If the GOP were to lose in 2012, the next cycle could be the most wide open since 1940. There would be no “runner-up” to claim the nomination next time, the way Romney claimed it in 2012 or John McCain in 2008 or Bob Dole in 1996 or George H.W .Bush in 1988.

But a Gingrich who had won some primaries as a conservative alternative to Romney – something neither Rick Perry nor Sarah Palin nor, by the way, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum will have done – could plausibly claim leadership of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Such a Gingrich could then credibly demand kowtowing and ring-kissing from everyone entering the huge 2016 field, especially since, by that point a year older than McCain was in 2008, he’d have difficulty mobilizing support for a second run of his own.

After all, an Obama re-election is a very possible outcome in 2012. Recovery is quickening now. Job numbers are rising. The president has foreign-policy successes to point to. House Republicans have left behind a record the president can attack, from threatening to default on the debt to passing a budget that withdraws the Medicare guarantee from voters under age 55. Primary season attacks on Romney’s business and tax records have drawn blood.

After this primary season, Gingrich can only win his own personal future if Romney loses. Look for him to do everything possible to help that outcome along.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.