By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Newt Gingrich visited a zoo in Maryland on Tuesday, and admired the howls of endangered red wolves ("Four wolves make quite a noise," the Republican presidential hopeful noted in a Twitter message).
Meanwhile, to some Republicans, his campaign seemed to be going to the dogs.
Hours later came reports that Gingrich had fired his campaign manager and his cash-strapped campaign had laid off a significant portion of its full-time staff.
The official line from Gingrich's staff is that he is charting a new course: no longer trying to win state primaries, but instead hoping to line up support at the Republican convention in Tampa late this summer, in case front-runner Mitt Romney can't lock down the nomination.
But for many Republican observers of the campaign -- including some who have been associated with the former U.S. House speaker -- the moves essentially mark the beginning of the end of Gingrich's campaign.
In recent weeks, they say, Gingrich's campaign has seemed less like a vote-getting exercise than an opportunity for him to visit zoos, historic sites and other places that interest him.
A source familiar with the campaign told Reuters that Gingrich and his wife, Callista, are reluctant to quit the race in part because they enjoy its perks: the attention, the platform, the Secret Service protection.
This week, Gingrich dispatched his wife to her native Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
"Great cheese curds at Drugan's in Holmen, Wisconsin," she told her 8,200 followers on Twitter.
One former Gingrich associate said he worried that Gingrich's decision to continue campaigning while running a distant third in the nomination race for convention delegates will harm the former speaker's reputation.
"My greatest fear for Newt is that a month from now, if he's not gathering delegates, people are going to ask why the federal government is paying (to protect) his campaign. I say that as his friend," said Matt Towery, a former Gingrich adviser and political commentator who has known Gingrich for 32 years.
Gingrich aides emphasized that the staff cutbacks, and a plan for Gingrich to reduce his travel, did not amount to giving up.
"It's not possible for us to get 1,144 delegates before the convention, but it looks like neither will (front-runner Mitt) Romney or (Rick) Santorum," Gingrich chief of staff Patrick Millsaps told MSNBC.
"If that is the case, we go into the convention, you go through the first vote, and then the nomination is a jump ball."
In the state-by-state race for the right to face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, Romney leads with an estimated 565 delegates, according to Real Clear Politics. Santorum is next with 256, followed by Gingrich with 141 and Texas Congressman Ron Paul with 66.
SANTORUM MOVES AHEAD
In recent weeks, Santorum has moved solidly ahead of Gingrich in their battle to be the conservative alternative to Romney, who is well-financed and backed by much of the Republican Party establishment.
At Georgetown University in Washington on Wednesday, Gingrich addressed 400 students in what was advertised as a speech on Social Security.
The former history professor hop-scotched a range of topics in American history, touching on Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Wright brothers. At one point, Gingrich assessed his campaign.
"I haven't done a very good job as a candidate because it's so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country when the entire structure of the system is so hostile to it," he said.
A CASH FLOW PROBLEM
Earlier, Gingrich blamed tight campaign finances for his campaign's downsizing.
"Cash flow is shorter than we'd like it to be so we're doing the appropriate things to be able to campaign," Gingrich said on a Washington radio station on Wednesday.
Gingrich's campaign debts totaled $1.55 million at the end of February, according to campaign finance disclosure forms that said the campaign had $1.54 million in cash on hand.
Stressing the campaign's empty coffers, Gingrich on Monday began charging $50 for photographs taken with him at events, according to the National Journal.
Gingrich's efforts also have been boosted by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose family has given $16.5 million to Winning Our Future, an independent "Super PAC," or political action committee, that supports Gingrich. In all, the PAC has raised $18.9 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
At the end of February, the group had $2.3 million cash on hand, compared with $10.5 million held by Restore Our Future, the Super PAC that backs Romney.
In recent weeks, Adelson has made it clear that he is willing to throw his money behind Romney if the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee.
"Fundraising is more of a challenge now, but you know that's nothing new," said Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich aide who now runs Winning Our Future.
Gingrich, who briefly was the front-runner in the race after winning the South Carolina primary on January 21, has been battered by TV ads placed by the pro-Romney PAC that have cast Gingrich as a Washington insider with questionable ethics.
Endorsements from two former Republican contenders, Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry, don't appear to have helped much.
Even for many of his supporters, Gingrich's trimmed ambitions do not come as a surprise. They said the campaign's weak financial standing and its poor showing in recent polls left Gingrich with few options.
"I think that he sees it as his only option," said Allen Olsen, a Tea Party leader and Gingrich supporter in Columbia, South Carolina. "I do wish he would still continue to campaign in each state."
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, Susan Heavey and Alina Selyukh in Washington, and Sam Youngman in Sparta, Wisconsin. Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)