DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich leads the 2012 pack in buzz but trails his rivals in just about every other category in Iowa.
The former House speaker is striving for a remarkable comeback with the smallest staff and the fewest precinct-level campaign backers of the seven candidates competing in the Jan. 3 presidential caucuses that kick off voting in the fight for the GOP nomination.
Gingrich, who casts himself as the idea candidate bucking convention, is betting that his prescriptions for what ails America — more so than tried-and-true campaign tools — can help him win in Iowa, a state where a stellar organization traditionally has been the key to turning out supporters to local political meetings called caucuses on a cold, Midwestern winter night.
"The traditional ways might not be the most efficient way. Newt has shown us campaigning now is different," said Katie Koberg, Gingrich's deputy Iowa caucus director. "It's not about how you many staff you can hire."
Can it work? It's a gamble.
Gingrich's task was made more difficult this year after his campaign imploded and Iowa moved its caucuses earlier in the year, on the heels of the holiday season.
But Koberg says a combination of traditional staff work and online recruiting could help Gingrich piece together an organization that could harness the momentum he has gathered.
With just four staff members — a fifth is scheduled to come aboard Friday — Gingrich's team in Iowa is at once reaching out through traditional methods, attending party functions and signing up supporters in person, and reaching out in less conventional ways.
Adding to Gingrich's structural challenges in the state, rivals are beginning to criticize him directly. Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign released an Internet video that cast Gingrich as a Washington insider who has profited personally from his stature in government. The ad specifically criticized Gingrich for money his consulting firm was paid by the federally backed mortgage company Freddie Mac.
For months, Gingrich has led a campaign on life support, raising money on the Internet by capitalizing on highly praised debate performances that, in turn, helped him finance his trip to the next debate.
Gingrich often repeats his campaign's website address during nationally broadcast interviews and debates, which has drawn Iowans into his organization. Interested Iowans get a call back from Koberg or one of her aides, are put on the mailing list, and are asked about volunteer work and, importantly, whether they will caucus for Gingrich.
There are risks to Gingrich's shoestring Iowa campaign. He holds few of his own events, choosing instead to appear at businesses or Republican Party functions. The events don't cost his campaign money to set up, but the audiences may be less reliably interested in hearing him.
For example, more than 150 western Iowa and Omaha-area Republicans packed the meeting room in a pizza restaurant in Council Bluffs on Wednesday night to hear Gingrich. On Thursday, he was expected at an insurance company, an association meeting and a county GOP function in the Des Moines area.
In Council Bluffs, Gingrich was asked to explain his immigration position, which has sparked criticism from some of his GOP rivals. He has called for allowing some established illegal immigrants to remain in the country — his opponents argue that he favors a type of amnesty — and he described deporting all the millions of people in the United States illegally as unrealistic.
"I don't want to start down the road toward policies that are hopeless," Gingrich said, prompting light applause. "There is a middle road that gets us to legality without citizenship."
Such events are all he can do, given that there are only five weeks until the caucuses. And the approach fits with Gingrich's confidence that his appeal as a tested congressional leader with an array of post-congressional career policy hallmarks will attract Republicans searching for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been a leader in national polls and in Iowa, despite a less aggressive Iowa campaign.
There's also a recent precedent for a successful, unconventional approach in Iowa.
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Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee vaulted to the top of the polls in Iowa four years ago on a shoestring budget and little organizational structure. However, Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, made deep inroads with Iowa's conservative evangelical clergy and Christian home-school advocates, giving him key niches.
Gingrich, on the other hand, is cobbling together a coalition of evangelicals, with supporters such as longtime social conservative Loras Schulte, and establishment Republicans such as the Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer.