POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 5, 2011
Surging in polls is one thing. But as Newt Gingrich seeks to turn his impressive performance in surveys into votes, he is scrambling madly to build the kind of organization that Mitt Romney has methodically put in place for a year, one that will let him compete through all 50 primaries, often in multiple states at once.
Upending expectations, Gingrich has taken a decisive lead in new polls in several early voting states, benefiting from the drift of Herman Cain supporters even before Cain withdrew from the race Saturday. But as an adviser to his skeletal Iowa operation admitted, "The reality is we're flying by the seat of the pants."
If neither candidate succeeds in knocking out the other in the burst of early tests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Gingrich could be faced with the ultimate challenge to his campaign: the need to survive a war of attrition of the sort for which he is unprepared at the moment.
Where volunteers for Romney have gathered voters' signatures to be on the ballots of Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Virginia and Illinois, Gingrich's campaign is only beginning to activate volunteers in those states.
And adding to the specter of a drawn-out battle is a change in the delegate selection process, which could make the contest a Republican version of the protracted 2008 Democratic primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was not resolved until all states had voted.
The Republican contest will test whether Romney's meticulous planning can overtake a burst of momentum for Gingrich. Romney's team has said all along that it has expected a tough battle for the nomination, and it has sought to emphasize that point in recent days with its new "earn it" rallying cry for volunteers and other supporters. But Gingrich presents an especially difficult rival for them, one who is showing signs of corralling support from the Tea Party movement and other grassroots conservatives while also being able to point to his governing experience.
Romney, who has not wanted to focus on Republican rivals, has been forced to shift from criticizing Obama to drawing clear distinctions with Gingrich on issues like what to do with illegal immigrants already in the United States and loosening child labor laws.
On Saturday in New Hampshire, he took aim at Gingrich's proposal to lift children out of poverty by paying them to mop floors in their schools.
"I certainly don't agree with that," Romney said. It would mean "repealing portions of the child labor law," he said.
For its part, the Gingrich campaign says it already addressing one daunting shortcoming: its fundraising. On Monday Gingrich planned to be in New York City visiting wealthy individuals to seek donations. In contrast with the summer, when his fundraising utterly dried up, the well is flowing again — initially with small online donations and now, said a spokesman, the bigger prize of high-dollar donors.
"We're seeing the return of donations closer to the $2,500 maximum per person, $5,000 per couple," said the spokesman, R.C. Hammond, who declined to say how much Gingrich has raised since his surge in the polls began about six weeks ago. He called the latest influx "Mitt money" — a nod to Romney's success tapping wealthy establishment Republicans.
Lots of money will be needed as the campaign moves to larger states, beginning with Florida, which votes Jan. 31, and where TV ads play a crucial role. Hammond was coy about plans. "Is the campaign ready to go on air? Stay tuned," he said. "Get your TiVos ready."
Should the race narrow to a head-to-head match with no decisive leader after the first four states vote in January — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — an extended fight could be set up because of the Republican National Committee's new rules this year.
Republicans operated under a winner-takes-all system in the past, which set the stage for an early victor, but this time most delegates will be awarded proportionally for contests taking place before April 1, which means finishing second can be nearly as fruitful as winning.
A long contest requires significant organization, which the Romney campaign has been building through an exhaustive state-by-state delegate operation. The Gingrich campaign, which went dormant in the summer, is racing to catch up. Gingrich, for example, will not appear on the Missouri ballot because his campaign missed the filing deadline last month and failed to send a $1,000 check to the secretary of state's office.
If the Republican contest becomes an exhaustive fight for delegates, the April primaries of New York and Pennsylvania and the June primaries of New Jersey and California could come into play to help decide the nominee. The longer the nominating contest lasts, the less time and money Republicans will have to invest in their ultimate goal: challenging Obama.
One advantage of a deep organization of staff and volunteers is seen in Romney's ground game in New Hampshire, where he still holds a solid lead in polls. On Saturday 500 volunteers knocked on doors across the state, the kind of person-to-person contacts that lesser campaigns with telephone banks cannot match.
"You're going out there and making relationships and communicating with these people all the time, so when people start attacking Mitt, you already have these relationships," said Jason McBride, Romney's state director. "Particularly Newt, he's got nobody doing that."
Gingrich has any number of vulnerabilities that could be exploited, if not by the Romney campaign, then by supporters like those running a "super PAC" on Romney's behalf. His strength — decades of political leadership and policymaking experience — also provides a fecund record for inconsistencies and bad blood.
Underscoring this on Sunday, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican and former House member, said, "I'm not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich, having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership."
Coburn, speaking on Fox News, implied that Gingrich fit a category of leaders "that have one standard for the people that they are leading and a different standard for themselves."
Gingrich has said he knows voters have many questions about him — from his personal life to his career — and his strategy is to patiently answer all of them. The latest to raise eyebrows are the two that Romney has been exploiting, his immigration policy and his suggestion to alter child-labor laws.
Gingrich and his staff believe that given enough time to explain himself, he will be persuade voters — just as he has done in re-introducing himself over the long series of televised debates that fueled his resurgence. The question is, with everything else on his To Do list, does Gingrich have enough time.
"The sound bite is his greatest enemy," Hammond said.