Once derided as a vanity candidate, the Georgia Republican has laid the foundation for a serious early-state effort
Newt Gingrich was in South Carolina on Tuesday, opening a new campaign office -- bringing the total to five, manned by a paid staff of 10 -- and stumping across the state.
Next, he'll be back in Iowa, where his campaign has just signed a lease on space in Des Moines and plans to have seven offices by the time of caucuses, just five weeks away on Jan. 3. In New Hampshire, where Gingrich recently got a boost in the form of an endorsement by the state's biggest newspaper, he has three offices and eight staffers.
Campaigning in the early states. Building the infrastructure and field staff to turn out primary and caucus voters. After months in the wilderness, Gingrich is behaving like a man with a shot at the nomination.
Though Gingrich's ground game is far from a formidable effort -- neutral observers in the early states say a campaign that previously was practically nonexistent now is desperately scrambling to catch up -- his operation has come a long way since the days he barely seemed to be running for president at all.
And unlike the other candidates who have stumbled into the Republican primary electorate's momentary favor this year, Gingrich is doing his utmost to capitalize on his time in the spotlight.
South Carolina is the state where Gingrich is making the biggest organizational push. The game plan: place well in Iowa, score a strong second-place showing in the Mitt Romney-owned territory of New Hampshire, and ride that momentum to a win in South Carolina.
After a summer in which most of his staff abandoned him amid concerns his supposed presidential run was really just a glorified book tour, "It appears he has cottoned to the idea," said Chip Felkel, an unaligned GOP consultant based in South Carolina.
"One would have to give him credit for playing the role of Lazarus somewhat, because he was clearly dead and buried," Felkel said.
In Iowa, Gingrich is basically starting from scratch. "I call him the Chia Pet of the caucuses -- he's growing from air," said Doug Gross, a lobbyist and former Republican gubernatorial nominee. "At the end of the day, he's got to have some organization to transfer this interest and excitement into turnout, and that's a major challenge with five weeks to go."
But Gingrich has hired back two respected Iowa hands who left his campaign in June -- Craig Schoenfeld, a caucus veteran who worked on George W. Bush's campaigns, and Katie Koberg, formerly of Iowans for Tax Relief. And rather than maintaining the delusion that he can do well in the caucuses without organizing, Gingrich is taking the task head-on, Gross said.
"They're trying to tackle the challenge. They're smart enough to know it exists," he said. "And other than Ron Paul, none of the other candidates has a good organization here, so it's a low bar."
The campaign expansion is backed by a resurgent fundraising effort -- as of two weeks ago, Gingrich had raised $4 million for the quarter that began in October, spokesman R.C. Hammond said. And while his current upward trajectory in national and state-level polling has come on suddenly, abetted by the collapse of Herman Cain, Gingrich has been laying the groundwork for this moment since mid-October, when he began deploying staff to the early states.
In New Hampshire, Gingrich's campaign is "a startup effort that's about a month old," said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. "They were literally installing phones at headquarters yesterday -- up until then they'd been on cell phones."
With six weeks to go until the primary, it will be a scramble for Gingrich to put together an operation in the Granite State. But he'll have air cover from the Manchester Union Leader, which endorsed him on Sunday: As the paper's longtime publisher, Joe McQuaid, once famously told the Washington Post, "The Union Leader's style is we don't just endorse once. We endorse every damn day."
And then there's South Carolina, the state that has picked the winner of every Republican presidential nominating contest since it started holding an early primary in 1980.
"Early on, it looked as if [Jon] Huntsman and Perry were putting together quite good field operations, but lately, I see a significant amount of activity out of the Gingrich side," said Robert Cahaly, an Atlanta-based consultant who works extensively in South Carolina. Gingrich, he said, is touring the state, drawing big crowds and hiring staffers with Tea Party credentials.