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."
In the meantime, Romney's team on Thursday began aggressively criticizing Gingrich's leadership and record. In a conference call arranged by Romney's campaign, former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent said Gingrich is "not a reliable and trusted conservative leader." Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu was more harsh, suggesting on the call that Gingrich's "irrational behavior," ''anti-principled actions" and "off-the-cuff thinking" could compromise his ability to be an effective commander in chief.
The Romney campaign's decision to go after Gingrich directly reflects a growing concern that Gingrich is a serious threat, despite Romney's public confidence in his long-term strategy.
New proportional voting rules give candidates a chance to claim partial victories in states that previously featured a winner-take-all system. Officials inside the Romney operation 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 from 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 support from 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 Talent in 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 earlier. "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."
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