Gingrich bets on unconventional primary strategy

By Steve Peoples

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks in West Des Moines, Iowa. Back from the political dead, Gingrich has momentum on his side just a month before the first voting in the GOP nomination fight. But he has never fully rebuilt his organization after almost his entire team quit in June, and his fundraising is questionable at best. Will that matter when he goes up against the well-funded and organized Mitt Romney for actual votes.

Charlie Neibergall, File, Associated Press

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Back from the political dead, Newt Gingrich has momentum on his side just a month before the first voting in the GOP nomination fight. But he has never fully rebuilt his organization after almost his entire team quit in June. And his fundraising is questionable at best.

Look no further than 968 Elm St. in Manchester to see the challenge he faces as he goes up against the well-funded and well-organized Mitt Romney, here and elsewhere.

Gingrich's New Hampshire campaign headquarters has been open for a month, but the phone system isn't hooked up. Offices sit empty. And the former House speaker has entrusted his success in the first-in-the-nation primary state to a 29-year-old tea party activist with virtually no political experience.

"I've never worked on any campaign before," state director Andrew Hemmingway, who flirted with a congressional bid last year, said Friday. "A campaign with resources and time and money stands back and says, 'Who are the best people for these positions?' We are a campaign fueled by passion. Everybody in my office is an activist."

There are similar situations for Gingrich in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. He is trying to resurrect an organization left for dead in June because of staff defections and a mound of debt. He's relying upon a skeleton crew of longtime advisers — making most decisions himself — while giving untested political operatives in key states unusual autonomy to craft strategy details. And with the Iowa caucuses less than five weeks away, they're scurrying to play catch-up with the nuts-and-bolts grunt work typically needed to transform poll numbers into election-day success.

In some cases, they're making it up as they go.

"Everybody's empowered to do their own thing. Newt told me the other night, 'You own New Hampshire. When in doubt, charge. Go with your instincts,'" Hemmingway said. "I've never done this before, but it's not rocket science."

Maybe not. But it takes both money and manpower to get people to the polls on a week night in the dead of winter — as will be needed in Iowa.

"That's the big question of this cycle: Does momentum in the polls trump an organizational approach?" said Phil Musser, a longtime Republican political consultant. "The reality is that the baseline need for a measure of infrastructure will never change in politics."

And in Iowa success requires a strong enough organization to recruit and mobilize 99 county precinct captains. Two weeks ago, Gingrich rehired two top Iowa staffers who quit in June amid the mass exodus that nearly scuttled his campaign.

A prominent voice in national politics for more than two decades, Gingrich says he knows he's behind in organization.

But he's banking on the somewhat untested notion that he can stay hot — and emerge the nominee — by pushing conservative policies and sharp anti-Obama rhetoric, while driving people to the caucuses through social and news media, rather than pure organization.

"It's an interesting test," he said in an interview this week. "It's better to peak than it is to fade. But we will generate enough new material — we're not going to fade."

Since leaving office more than a decade ago, Gingrich has fostered a strong grass-roots following through paid speeches as well as books he's written and films he's made.

Now, his poll numbers have hit new highs.

He's replaced the embattled Herman Cain in second place among New Hampshire voters in a University of New Hampshire poll released last week. And he's locked in a tight race with — or leading — Romney in other early voting states. But some independent Republican operatives aren't convinced he can maintain those numbers, particularly without a strong team to support them as he goes up against Romney's strength.

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