Despite Momentum, Newt Has Long Road Ahead in New Hampshire

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Daron Dean / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the First Coast Tea Party town hall meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, Nov. 17, 2011.

All fall in New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidates have been auditioning for the role of Mitt Romney’s foil. With 43 days before the nation’s first primary, it’s finally Newt Gingrich’s turn on stage. Gingrich’s surge to No. 2 status in the state was punctuated Sunday with a coveted endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper, and so far he’s relishing the resurrection. “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate,” the former House Speaker told a South Carolina radio station on Monday. “I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.”

It was vintage Gingrich, from the barb that undercuts a key Romney selling point to the state where he delivered it. Gingrich’s spiking poll numbers in New Hampshire are a tribute to his ability to wield the withering one-liner in nationally televised debates, not his comparatively spotty record of visits to the Granite State. At least until lately, he hasn’t built the kind of well-tuned ground game that New Hampshire primary winners have boasted in cycles past.

Frustrated by the candidate’s scattershot campaign schedule, a spate of Gingrich staffers fled over the summer, and the former House Speaker was slow to rebuild his team. In a recent poll conducted by the Huffington Post and, none of the well-connected New Hampshire voters surveyed ranked Gingrich’s organization the best in the state. When Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, offered to host a house party for Gingrich in New Hampshire this year, he resorted to buttonholing a Gingrich staffer at a private event, since he lacked a traditional line to the candidate’s team. The event never materialized. “We’ve sort of been yes’ed to death on it,” Cullen says. “The offer still stands…There was just no infrastructure.”

In recent weeks Gingrich has ramped up that infrastructure, hiring more than a half-dozen in-state staffers, including Andrew Hemingway, a well-regarded young state director with Tea Party ties. But his ground game and campaign coffers are still dwarfed by that of Romney, who has a home in the state and several years of steady glad-handing under his belt. In this campaign season of spurts and swoons, organization may not carry the heft it once did — it was free media, after all, that boosted Gingrich and Herman Cain while they were bypassing early states to court voters in less traditional locales. Still, his climb to second in recent polls appears to have caught many Republicans in the state by surprise. While the Union Leader endorsement was big news, Cullen says the fact that few elected Republicans in the state had publicly backed the former House Speaker is just as telling.

Republican insiders caution that Gingrich is only the latest candidate to take his turn in the spotlight. “This is an opportunity. We’ve had lots of other candidates be handed that opportunity and fumble it,” Cullen says. “There’s nothing to suggest Romney is going to collapse. Can [Gingrich challenge] for the win? It’s hard for me to see it.”

Like Romney, who has thus far survived rivals’ attacks with little accumulated scar tissue, Gingrich has been cushioned by voters’ familiarity with his checkered history, from his three marriages to the drubbing he took from Bill Clinton in their mid-’90s budget battles. But in his first debate under the full scrutiny of the national spotlight, he may have created a new problem by staking out a moderate position on immigration that could rankle some Republicans. He wouldn’t be the first to be damaged by the electrified topic. While Rick Perry’s brain freeze on national television was the most memorable moment amid his plunge in the polls, it was Perry’s policy of providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants that first sent his candidacy into a tailspin. “Immigration is a big deal up here with primary voters,” says Rich Killion, an unaffiliated New Hampshire GOP strategist. “New Hampshire voters see the issue of immigration as one of fairness. At the gut level, it is one that causes a big reaction.”

But Gingrich may also be the candidate whose talents best match the demands of a moment when Republicans are weary of the carousel of candidates revealed as ill-equipped to face off with Barack Obama. He has experience under pressure, a combative style that contrasts with Romney’s textbook prevent-defense campaign and an ability to present a case for his candidacy with force that others failed to muster. That biting rhetoric has earned him plenty of enemies within his own party — so toxic was his speakership that Gingrich was the subject of a failed coup in the House — and not a few skeptics who predict he’ll self-destruct. But with time running out, Gingrich argues he’s the best Romney alternative Republicans have left. “There needs to be a solid conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and I’m the one candidate that can bring together a national security conservative, and economic conservative, and social conservative, to make sure we have a conservative nominee,” he said Monday.

Whether he can convince voters of this is one of the questions that will define the race as it enters its final month. The primary remains fluid, with just 16% of voters in one poll released last week indicating they’ve made up their minds for certain. “Mitt Romney is not just the front-runner; he’s a very strong front-runner. That notwithstanding, the New Hampshire primary has a long history of being tremendously challenging terrain for any front-runner,” Killion says. “Newt, through more or less the inability, inaction and missed opportunities of others, has fallen into this role of the alternative. He has open space right now. He has to seize it.”