Newt Gingrich greets supporters at a book signing in Naples, Fla. over the weekend. (AP)
NAPLES, Fla. -- The staff at Books-a-Million didn't know what hit them.
In preparation for a Saturday morning book signing with Newt Gingrich, the bookstore printed numbered cards for the first 500 people looking for an autograph from the former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate. The store gave out its first card at 8 a.m. on Black Friday--27 hours before Gingrich was scheduled to arrive--and ran out before he stepped in the door. After that, the Gingrich fans had to fend for themselves.
Gingrich spent the two days after Thanksgiving on a campaign swing through Naples, Florida, a wealthy conservative stronghold in the Sunshine State that was, to say the least, extremely welcoming. He started with a Friday night speech to an overflow crowd at the Hilton Naples, where flocks of white-haired seniors who couldn't find a chair opted to sit on the floor for more than an hour watching the speech on a flat-screen TV. When the room filled up a half hour before the event, hundreds of people outside the hotel conference room crowded outside the door, waiting for the hotel staff to look away so they could try to sneak in.
"It's a mob scene!" one woman yelled into her cell phone as she tried to push her way through a throng of pastel-clad retirees.
Gingrich's face beamed as he walked through the front door into a packed hotel lobby.
"I want to apologize to many of our friends who are out in the parking lot," Gingrich said when he took the stage. "This is frankly a much bigger crowd than we expected."
After his speech, during which he took time to clarify his position on illegal immigration, Gingrich hopped over to a $1,000-per-person fundraiser at a city council member's home and then spent four hours the next morning at a Books-a-Million, where he brought in 650 people.
After months in the middle tier, Gingrich is the latest presidential candidate not named Mitt to ascend to the top of national polls. And with just five weeks until the first caucus in Iowa, he may have the best chance at being there when it matters. On Sunday, the largest newspaper in New Hampshire, the Union Leader, endorsed Gingrich in the Republican primary.
Although he has been in the public eye for years and seen his share of crowds, this kind of attention is new for Presidential Candidate Newt.
After his marathon Books-a-Million autograph session on Saturday, I sat down with Gingrich in a quiet corner of the store where we talked about his run for the White House and a wide range of issues. He spoke candidly about federal drug policies ("I don't think actually locking up users is a very good thing," he said, suggesting instead an approach that would create an array of federal incentives for more effective treatment of drug use). He also explained his position on Cuba, whether he plans to request Secret Service protection and more.
You can read the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, below:
Read More »from Newt Gingrich on drug laws, entitlements and campaigning: The Yahoo News interview