Cliff Owen, Associated Press
BOSTON — Mitt Romney has a not-so-secret weapon against Newt Gingrich.
The former Massachusetts governor has built a mammoth political machine unrivaled in the GOP field, a campaign that's well entrenched in the four states to vote in January — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — and touches dozens of other states that his opponents have largely ignored.
At its national headquarters, Romney's team is executing a strategy that takes advantage of new party rules that award convention delegates in a different way. And supporters from Alabama to Alaska say they're prepared for an extended primary battle that could go well into the summer.
"This will probably take longer than a week or two to sort out," Romney said in Arizona this week. "My expectation is that it's going to be a campaign that is going to go on for a while."
Indeed, new proportional voting rules give candidates a chance to claim partial victories in states that previously featured a winner-take-all system. Top officials inside the Romney administration and the Republican National Committee argue that the new system encourages a long march to victory, similar to the Democratic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.
It's a path that played well for Obama's nationwide network four years ago. And it's one that Romney hopes to emulate in the coming months, regardless of how things turn out in Iowa or New Hampshire.
"We're running for president of the United States, not president of the early states," Romney political director Rich Beeson said. "We're focused on the early states just like every other campaign, but we are also focused on the long term. We're looking at primaries in June."
Romney's campaign has already collected more than 1,300 endorsements from Republican activists and current and former elected officials across 44 states and Puerto Rico. Gingrich has collected fewer than two dozen endorsements in six states.
The organizational dominance offers Romney an army of high-profile supporters who are sharing political networks of their own. Romney has already has won over eight U.S. senators, 45 House members and three governors. In many cases the officials have been at it for months, raising money, spreading Romney's message and crafting state-specific strategies. They have been working in small towns and capitals alike in often-overlooked states like Vermont and Tennessee — even in Gingrich's home state of Georgia.
In some cases, people like former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri have been working on Romney's behalf, officially or unofficially, for more than four years.
"He had a solid core of support going in," Talent said. "Running for president is really running a campaign in a number of different states at once. Romney's organization started off very early in a number of states."
Beeson said the strategy is built to be competitive regardless of which Republican rival emerges as Romney's strongest competitor. In recent weeks it's become Gingrich. The former House speaker has so far won the endorsement of 14 elected officials in those states, according to a list provided by his campaign this week, while Romney has won the support of nearly 125 current and former GOP officials.
"Newt has no campaign," said Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist and lobbyist who worked with Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago. "No staff, no infrastructure, no fundraising mechanism."
Gingrich has hired aides in recent weeks in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But Black argues that it's too late for him to assemble the type of operation needed to win primary after primary.
"You can't go all the way through this process without having a mechanism under you," he said.
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