WASHINGTON — The Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich today, signaling that rival Mitt Romney isn't the universal favorite and that the state's largest newspaper could reset the contest there with six weeks to go before voters cast their ballots.
"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing," the newspaper wrote in an editorial that was as much a promotion of Gingrich as a discreet rebuke of Romney.
"We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job," the newspaper continued.
Romney enjoys a solid leads in New Hampshire polls and remains at the front of the pack nationally. A poll released last week showed him with 42 percent support among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. Gingrich followed with 15 percent in the WMUR-University of New Hampshire Granite State poll.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas posted 12 percent support and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman found 8 percent support in that respected survey.
Those numbers could shift based on the backing of The Union Leader, a newspaper with a conservative editorial page that proudly works to influence elections in the politically savvy state, from school boards to the White House.
"We don't have to agree with them on every issue," the newspaper wrote in an editorial that ran across the width of the front page. "We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."
While Romney enjoys solid support in national polls, a sizable pack of Republicans have shifted all year from candidate to candidate in search of an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. That led to the rise, and fall, of potential candidates such as Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Yet with six weeks until New Hampshire voters cast their ballots, The Union Leader's move could shuffle the race there and give Gingrich another boost. In recent weeks, he has seen a surge in some polls as Republicans start to ask themselves: which candidate is best positioned to take on President Barack Obama?
As the public started tuning in, Gingrich kept posting solid debate performances and he found his stride on a national stage, the former Georgia lawmaker began rebuilding his campaign. In New Hampshire, he brought on respected tea party leader Andrew Hemingway to lead his efforts and his team has been contacting almost 1,000 voters each day.
Hemingway's team of eight paid staffers in New Hampshire has been adding more than 100 volunteers each day, campaign officials said. Gingrich's team already has lined up leaders in the major cities and has started identifying representatives in each ward in the state.
Gingrich also has opened three offices in New Hampshire — in Manchester, the state's biggest city; in Dover in the eastern part of the state; and in the North Country's Littleton — and plans two more.
Gingrich hasn't yet begun television advertising and fastidiously refused to go negative on his opponents.
Yet The Union Leader's backing could give him a nudge in New Hampshire and provide a steady stream of criticism.
Four years earlier, the newspaper threw its support to Sen. John McCain's bid and used Page One opinion columns and editorials to boost him — and criticize Romney. In the time since, Romney has worked to court Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid, who often publishes columns on the newspaper's front page under his signature.
"The Union Leader's style is we don't just endorse once," McQuaid told The Washington Post in 1999. "We endorse every damn day. We started endorsing Reagan in 1975 and never stopped."
Romney and his wife, Ann, had dinner with the McQuaids at the Bedford Village Inn near Manchester, hoping to reset the relationship earlier this year. Yet it didn't prove enough and McQuaid's newspaper seemed not to appreciate the outreach.
"Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate," the editorial said. "But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running."
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