Michael Dwyer, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich landed the endorsement of New Hampshire's largest newspaper on Sunday while rival Mitt Romney earned a dismissive wave, potentially resetting the race in the state with the first-in-the-nation primary.
For Gingrich, the former House speaker, the backing builds on his recent rise in the polls and quick work to build a campaign after a disastrous start in the summer. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has a vacation home in the state and has been called a "nearly native son of New Hampshire," absorbed the blow heading into the Jan. 10 vote that's vital to his campaign strategy.
"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing," The New Hampshire Union Leader said in its front-page editorial, which was as much a promotion of Gingrich as a discreet rebuke of Romney.
"We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job," the endorsement said.
The Union Leader's editorial telegraphed conservatives' concerns about Romney's shifts on crucial issues of abortion and gay rights were unlikely to fade. Those worries have led Romney to keep Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses — where conservatives hold great sway — at arm's length.
At the same time, the endorsement boosts Gingrich's conservative credentials. He spent the week defending his immigration policies against accusations that they a form of amnesty. On Monday, Gingrich takes a campaign swing through South Carolina, the South's first primary state.
Even Democrats on Sunday were noting Gingrich's rise.
"He's clearly a smart guy," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. "And look, I give him some credit for not just blowing with the winds on an issue like immigration. That showed some real courage."
Romney, taking a few days' break for the Thanksgiving holiday, has kept focused on a long-term strategy that doesn't lurch from one development to another. Last week, he picked up the backing of Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota conservative, to add to his impressive roster of supporters.
The Union Leader's rejection of Romney wasn't surprising despite his efforts to woo state leaders. The newspaper rejected Romney four years ago in favor of Arizona Sen. John McCain, using front-page columns and editorials to promote McCain and criticize Romney. In the time since, Romney courted publisher Joseph W. McQuaid. Earlier this year Romney and his wife, Ann, had dinner with the McQuaids at the Bedford Village Inn near Manchester, hoping to reset the relationship. It didn't prove enough.
Romney's advisers were quick to point out that Gingrich went into October with more than $1 million in campaign debt. Romney, meanwhile, was sitting on a pile of cash and only last week began running television ads — a luxury Gingrich can't yet afford.
The duo's rivals, meanwhile, tried to gain traction.
Herman Cain on Sunday criticized any immigration proposal that included residency or citizenship but struggled to explain how he would deal with the millions of people estimated to be currently living illegally in the United States.
Cain, who joined the race to great fanfare, has seen his luster fade as his seemed to have trouble articulating the nuances of his policy positions. For instance, he was unable to explain the difference between "targeted identification," which he says would determine common characteristics of people who want to harm the United States, and racial profiling.
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