TUPELO, Miss. — It was an ominous introduction for Republican Newt Gingrich, whose future as a presidential candidate rests in Mississippi and Alabama.
"I can tell you right now, he's tired. He needs your prayers," former state Sen. Lee Yancey told a half-full Jackson hotel ballroom before the former House speaker took the stage.
Gingrich's aides have said the candidate needs to win Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday to justify staying in the race. He scrapped weekend plans to campaign in Kansas ahead of the Saturday caucuses to stay in the South, his adopted home and the only place he's won in the 2012 campaign.
"I want your help next Tuesday so we can win the Republican nomination," Gingrich flatly told the group, his voice a little rough. "This race has been a roller coaster, up and down. I believe with your help next Tuesday when we win here and we win in Alabama we'll be back up again."
What few in the crowd of about 100 knew is that the night before, Gingrich took some time to enjoy himself. He shed his jacket and tie, sipped some wine and danced with his wife, Callista, in the bar, a carefree respite with staff that ran into the early hours of Thursday.
Gingrich was on time for his 9 a.m. appearance on his first day under Secret Service protection, adding dozens of new faces and a buzz of activity around his events. But the former college professor known for speeches resembling lectures drifted further afield from his usual contrast with President Barack Obama.
Gingrich seemed more focused on amusing his audience than pressing them for their votes.
He paused early in his remarks to comment on the thick accents of Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which drew laughs.
He took his now routine mocking of Obama's support for exploring the energy possibilities of algae and limits on drilling — a regular laugh line for Gingrich — further than usual.
And, explaining his interpretation of the Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness" passage, he went for laughs again.
"There's no provision for happiness stamps for the under-happy," Gingrich quipped.
Jackson Republican Bill Wolfson stood in line for a handshake and a picture, planning to vote for Gingrich Tuesday.
But Wolfson doubted Gingrich would win the nomination. "I'm afraid he won't," the retired architect said. "We might get Romney, but he's not going to do the job Newt could."
Despite his liberated air, Gingrich was keeping up a rigorous schedule on Thursday and Friday, with events planned from the far northwest corner of Mississippi to Gulfport on the Gulf coast before plowing back into Alabama Saturday.
But rival Rick Santorum, who won Tennessee, was also campaigning in the South. The former Pennsylvania senator drew twice the crowd in Jackson that Gingrich did the night before, and Santorum was an hour late.
The day brought another call from a top Santorum supporter for Gingrich to quit the race to help conservatives consolidate behind one candidate — Santorum.
Former U.S. Education Sec. Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative who has endorsed Santorum, said Gingrich could best help the conservative cause by stepping aside.Comment on this story
"There is great admiration for Newt Gingrich's contributions to conservatism, as well as his debating abilities," Bauer said in a statement. "But the overwhelming sentiment was that he could most help the conservative cause by standing with Santorum so that voters have a clear choice in the remaining primaries."
Although Gingrich is airing television ads promoting his plan to push gas prices down to $2.50, his rivals are more heavily invested. A political action committee supporting Santorum announced Thursday it was spending $600,000 on television ads in Mississippi and Alabama.
Alabama polls show Gingrich trailing Santorum and Romney.
Romney planned to campaign in Mississippi Thursday evening.