Gingrich Eager to Be More Than an Anti-Romney


newt-gingrich1For Newt Gingrich, this is when it gets serious.

After a surge that has brought his candidacy back from a punch line, it is time to translate the free-floating support as measured by polls into donations and a grass-roots organization that will turn out voters in early states.

On Monday, Mr. Gingrich begins three busy days in South Carolina, where he will cut ribbons at his second and third state offices, court high-dollar donors at a $500-a-person coffee gathering and meet privately with influential Tea Party leaders. Besides recently hiring nine staff members in South Carolina, he has added half a dozen in New Hampshire as the campaign taps into a flood of online donations.

On Sunday, Mr. Gingrich received a major boost when he picked up the endorsement of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, The Union Leader, a rebuke to Mitt Romney, who has a commanding lead in polls in the state and had hoped to gain from the paper’s influence with conservative voters.

The question is whether all the effort is too little, too late with the first votes to be cast in less than five weeks. The campaign still has only a bare-bones operation in Iowa, whose caucuses on Jan. 3 are becoming all the more important in a fractured Republican field. And the campaign said it decided not to participate in the Missouri primary on Feb. 7, after a crucial contest in Florida, because delegates would be awarded in the state’s March caucuses.

As Mr. Gingrich’s popularity has grown, he is facing more intensifying attacks from his rivals, particularly over his call for a more “humane” policy to allow some longtime illegal immigrants to remain in the country.

A top aide to Mr. Romney predicted that the Gingrich bubble would deflate as others before it have. “You don’t have to go deep here,” the aide said, referring to controversial stances and personal baggage from Mr. Gingrich’s past. “It ranges from immigration to ethics to being a Washington insider to Freddie Mac to you pick them.”

Still, the Gingrich campaign shows signs of putting to rest concerns that his candidacy is little more than a promotional tour. This week, his book-signing appearances are all preceded by town-hall-style meetings. Over the weekend, hundreds turned out at his campaign events in Florida.

His hiring of staff members in South Carolina and New Hampshire is helping to lead one of the largest grass-roots efforts of any candidate. The Union Leader endorsement cited Mr. Gingrich’s “innovative, forward-looking strategy” while noting he was not “the perfect candidate.”

Increasingly, Mr. Gingrich is emerging as the Romney alternative, perhaps the last man standing after the fading of previous conservative standard-bearers: Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Herman Cain, the former pizza executive.

Once affluent donors “are finally settling on the anti-Romney candidate,” said James Epley, Mr. Gingrich’s chairman for Buford County, S.C., “then those folks who are holding back will come aboard.”

The Gingrich campaign says it has raised $4 million since the end of September, a big jump over the previous three months, when it brought in only $800,000 and ended the fiscal quarter with $350,000 in the bank.

The campaign would not say how much of that came from high-dollar donors, who are a sign of establishment support beyond the small contributors who respond to Internet and e-mail pitches.

Nor would it say whether it planned television ads – another sign of a campaign’s maturity – which are costly but have the potential to shift the conversation with voters.

A spokesman, R. C. Hammond, said Mr. Gingrich held a fund-raiser over the weekend in Naples, Fla., that brought in around $50,000. Another is scheduled at the Crazy Crab restaurant on affluent Hilton Head Island on Tuesday morning, for which it expects 15 to 20 donors at $500 apiece.

The crowds on the trail are a marked departure from the summer and early fall, when Mr. Gingrich was forced to live off the land, bunking in Des Moines in the home of his Iowa co-chairman, Dr. Greg Ganske, a plastic surgeon.

“Greg makes one of the best cups of coffee in Iowa,” Mr. Hammond said.

The lean times followed the mass resignation in June of more than a dozen Gingrich staff members who cited the candidate’s unwillingness to commit to the grind of retail campaigning. But he now seems to be taking to heart those former advisers’ prescriptions and getting down to hard slogging. “You’ll see a lot of us in Iowa, a lot of us in South Carolina and a lot of us in New Hampshire,” said Mr. Hammond, one of the few who did not quit.

Mr. Gingrich has visited New Hampshire four times since he filed to be on the primary ballot in late October, the date his staff there traces to his comeback.

About 1,000 supporters have signed up through a Web site in the past two weeks, said Matthew LeDuc, a staff member for Mr. Gingrich in the state. “He was able to come in here, capture his moment, get in front of people’s faces,” he said.

The endorsement by The Union Leader gives Mr. Gingrich an important conservative stamp of approval. It did not mention Mr. Romney, who has a home in the state and is all but a favorite son after serving as governor of Massachusetts. He has campaigned relentlessly in the state. And although Mr. Romney was considered unlikely to get the paper’s endorsement because it traditionally goes to more conservative candidates, The Union Leader’s decision to back Mr. Gingrich may sting, given how credible a threat he now represents.

One major question is whether conservative Christians in Iowa, who carry outsize influence, will embrace Mr. Gingrich, particularly given that he is thrice married and has admitted infidelity.

“Some evangelical Christians would outright not consider him,” said Justin LaVan, president of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators. “I, on the other hand, am not looking for a presidential candidate” based on “whether he’s qualified to be an elder in my church.”

An influential evangelical group, the Family Leader, which opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, named Mr. Gingrich one of four candidates in the running for its endorsement.

“I never thought I’d get excited about Newt Gingrich, but in terms of ideas and the ability to articulate ideas and his grasp of history, there’s no one better,” said Matt Reisetter, development director of the Family Leader.

Regarding Mr. Gingrich’s personal indiscretions, Mr. Reisetter said: “I’ve heard him speak very candidly about those things, and I’ve been convinced he is remorseful. I’m willing to forgive and move on.”

He added, “He’s also been in politics a long time, and you don’t know if you’re getting the wool pulled over your eyes.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}