In the southwest corner of a low-rise office park on the outskirts of Des Moines, the hottest campaign in presidential politics is scrambling to get organized. Newt Gingrich’s Iowa headquarters is a spare ground-floor suite with cell-phone boxes strewn across bare industrial carpeting and a handful of empty folding tables to accommodate the anticipated surge of volunteers. It opened six days ago. The cell phones — no point installing land lines if you only plan to stay a month — just arrived on Tuesday. At the moment, the makeshift reception desk is being manned by a super-volunteer named Judy Reynolds, who drove to Des Moines from Culver, Ind., the Monday before Thanksgiving and signed a six-week lease on a studio apartment. “It would sure be sweet if we had 30 volunteers, 30 phones going at once,” she says. For now she is content to sit alone near a spangly Christmas tree, logging 10-to-12 hour shifts, seven days a week, to spread the gospel of Gingrich.
And spread it has. Since Saturday, a quartet of polls have shown the former House Speaker outpacing his GOP rivals in Iowa, notching leads of between seven and 15 points. Gingrich is now the undisputed Iowa frontrunner, which means he bears the weight of the expectations that come with it. And perhaps the most curious aspect of his improbable rise in Iowa is that it has masked what, until lately, was an almost non-existent campaign organization, one of the flimsiest in the GOP field.
That’s now changing. Gingrich has started to staff up in each of the key early battlegrounds as he’s surged to the pole position in the Republican presidential primary. But in a state whose caucus system requires supporters to troop en masse to church basements and elementary schools on a frigid winter night, Gingrich still has only the barest semblance of a ground game. Whether he can build one–indeed, whether he needs one at all–is among the most critical questions hanging over the race with just 28 days to go.
This was not how Gingrich or his staff originally scripted it. “Of course our first inclination in Iowa, when we had a relatively full staff, was to hit all 99 counties, get our precinct chairs,” recalls Linda Upmeyer, the chairwoman of Gingrich’s Iowa campaign and the state’s house majority leader. But his campaign imploded last summer, with a staff exodus amid widespread suspicions over his commitment to a process marked by a sojourn to the Greek Islands and a scattershot campaign schedule. “When the staff exited,” Upmeyer says, “what we agreed on was we were going to run a race that put him in front of as many people as possible and do as much as we could to make sure we have caucus turnout and a great list of volunteers.”
More than any other candidate, Gingrich was propelled by his strong performances in the glut of GOP debates. “The debates added a whole new dimension,” Upmeyer says. With little in the campaign’s coffers, Gingrich shrewdly capitalized on free media and skimped on expenses by showing up to events — a GOP county forum, an interest-group cattle call for candidates — where he didn’t have to foot the bill. Even now, as poll after poll shows him positioned atop at the field, he’s forced to hopscotch the country to raise funds for what could be a 50-state war of attrition with Mitt Romney’s well-oiled machine.
First, though, he must win Iowa; anything less would now be a crippling disappointment. And it won’t be as easy as the polls presently suggest. Gingrich trails Romney in fundraising and Ron Paul in organization. With just seven paid staffers currently in the state, he appears to have no chance to cobble together a traditional operation — training volunteers, logging 25,000 phone calls a week, lining up a captain for each of Iowa’s 1,784 precincts — in time to turn out voters on Jan. 3. “No way,” says Tim Albrecht, the spokesman for Iowa’s Republican governor Terry Branstad. “But he doesn’t necessarily need to.” Gingrich’s decision to forgo the hustings of Iowa for a boardroom powwow with Donald Trump might backfire were anyone other than Rick Santorum around to remind voters of the slight. But this year, most candidates have skipped over the Iowa cornfields and scaled down their organizations; none have announced 99 county chairs, once a simple benchmark for any viable caucus winner.
Part of the calculation can be chalked up to the success enjoyed four years ago by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who knocked off the Romney campaign juggernaut despite running a slim, unseasoned campaign fueled by a passionate bloc of supporters. “There is a Huckabee-esque quality to his campaign,” Albrecht says of Gingrich. “It’s perhaps not as passionate or as large, but it doesn’t have to be. With a skeletal staff, they have to bank on supporters organizing themselves.”
This is one of the pillars of the Gingrich campaign’s strategy. His team is making the assumption — not an unreasonable one — that Gingrich’s growing cadre of backers, inspired by his disquisitions about a country at a crossroads, will recognize the stakes of the caucuses and mobilize on their own. “You can hire a lot of people and claim to have a strong organization, but in the end you still have to have the right candidate,” says Katie Koberg, an early Gingrich Iowa staffer who last month returned to help orchestrate the final push. Koberg says the campaign has a playbook for the final four weeks, but that much of the direction will trickle down from an “incredibly relaxed” and confident candidate given to flights of improvisation. At a recent meeting, she recalls, Gingrich scribbled a slogan on a scrap of paper and passed it to her. The line — “Restoring the America We Love” — became the theme of his first TV spot in the state, christened “Rebuilding the America We Love.”
For many Iowa Republicans, these broad themes — at once sunny and optimistic, but set against a backdrop of economic malaise and high unemployment — have helped lift Gingrich above the rest of the field, neutralizing his weaknesses in the process. He’s beating Romney on his home turf–economic expertise and budget deficits–and even boasts an edge in general-election viability. What’s even more mystifying is that he’s cornered the Tea Party vote despite being an old Washington hand who supported TARP, championed a health-insurance mandate and teamed up with Nancy Pelosi to combat climate change.
But Gingrich’s isolated missteps are far removed from the minds of die-hard supporters like Judy Reynolds. “There are individual issues I might not agree with him on,” she says. “But I don’t know anybody with the depth of experience he has. I think he’s brilliant. I think he thinks outside the box.” Gingrich’s team thinks that in a strange year, in a party desperate for a standard-bearer who can match wits on a debate stage with Barack Obama, that will prove to be enough.