Otherwise, Mr. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and presumptive campaign dropout, pretty much had the run of the place. He was unbothered by persuadable voters, supporters or media fuss. His staff consisted of a young traveling aide. He appeared exhausted, his hair sticking up in the back as he walked with a weary stutter step — literally limping to the finish.
Yet Mr. Gingrich still retained a sense of childlike fascination that has been as much a hallmark of his campaign as his bombastic statements, staff dysfunction and debate star turns.
“I am learning about cars,” Mr. Gingrich explained to a lone reporter on the fringe of an entourage that otherwise included local Republican officials, Penske executives and about 12 people wearing earpieces.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he marveled. “Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve learned something new and different about how complex this country is. This is part of the reason we’re doing this.”
The rest of his rationale for still campaigning is unclear, especially since he indicated after getting trounced in five more primaries this week that he would leave the race. “The campaign will go bye-bye,” he said definitively at a luncheon here Thursday.
But not just yet. He had committed himself to several events in North Carolina, he said. He wanted to honor those and not disappoint anyone who had planned to see him. What’s a few more days?
In financial terms, it costs taxpayers about $40,000 a day to pay for Mr. Gingrich’s Secret Service detail. His campaign was $4.3 million in debt as of the end of March, according to filings. There is also the intangible cost to Mr. Gingrich’s stature and the threat to party unity behind the inevitable nominee, Mitt Romney — whom, Mr. Gingrich says, he will support and campaign for.
Mr. Gingrich seems not to care in the least about the stature and party unity thing. On Thursday, he cared about cars.
“This is absolutely astonishing,” he said, transfixed while caressing a gray engine block in a prototyping lab. He walked slowly across a factory floor that resembled one of those blinding white rooms in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The place was largely vacant, as many employees had decamped to Brazil for a big race this weekend.
Mr. Gingrich gave a thumbs-up to a guy driving by on a maintenance cart and popped his head into an office. “Hi, I’m Newt,” he said to the startled occupant, Felicia Thomas. “I know who you are,” she said.
He lingered, in no rush at all.
One of the quirky indulgences of modern campaigns is that candidates announce their intent to run for president on multiple occasions — essentially, stunts to milk media attention. They announce the formation of exploratory committees, announce that they intend to run, announce that they are actually running, etc.
Ever the innovator, Mr. Gingrich has applied that ritual to quitting. While he has had no realistic chance of overtaking Mr. Romney for several weeks, he maintained until recently that he would stay in the race all the way to the Republican National Convention.
But at some point, Mr. Gingrich started referring to the race in the past tense. He shed nearly all of his staff members. He pinned his hopes on Tuesday’s primary in tiny Delaware, saying that he would reassess if he lost — which he did, by almost 30 points.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gingrich indicated that he would suspend the campaign next week with a speech. He will offer some form of official endorsement of Mr. Romney.
A familiar analogy is to the Japanese soldiers who turned up in remote areas long after August 1945 and had no idea that World War II had ended. But Mr. Gingrich knows that his war is over, and while not exactly fighting, he is not surrendering yet, either. His wife, Callista, was appearing at events nearby.
How would he characterize his current status?
“I am a citizen,” he said. “And I will continue to be a citizen.”
(As a practical matter, Mr. Gingrich is a citizen who is being protected by that taxpayer-supported Secret Service detail. His campaign spokesman, R. C. Hammond, said, “It is at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security when they will cease protecting the candidate.” That was expected to occur Thursday night.)
Befitting his citizenship, Mr. Gingrich then headed to a lunch with fellow citizens at the Charles Mack Citizen Center in downtown Mooresville, a few doors from the Anything’s Possible tattoo parlor.
He pulled up in a caravan of four S.U.V.’s, two North Carolina state trooper patrol cars and other unmarked vehicles. About 20 people showed up inside, many of them the same local dignitaries and party officials who were at the Penske plant . Again, Mr. Gingrich appeared completely unbothered.
“It’s a small enough group that we can really chat,” he said, and proceeded to do nearly all of the chatting for close to an hour. He stood in front of a Gingrich 2012 sign and delivered the same kind of Newt-ian stemwinder that he used to deliver in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That was back in the zestful days when Mr. Gingrich suddenly found himself at the center of the national conversation. Back when important voters were still listening to him.
At the citizen center Thursday, Mr. Gingrich zigzagged forth on a diverse set of topics: the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, bladder transplants, his fascination with the human brain, shale gas, the threat of “cyberpenetration,” his visit Wednesday to two impressive charter schools and a few other things. Near the end, he mentioned something about Mr. Romney.
But enough about him. Mr. Gingrich had some final points to make before departing to a small but hearty standing ovation. He said he planned to spend the next few months staying active as a citizen, doing what he could to defeat President Obama. He planned to spend next week working the phones, thanking donors and no doubt hitting some of them up to help him retire his campaign debt. He then has to make some money himself.
“It’s been a long and expensive two years,” he said. “But it’s been fun.”