From the beginning of his campaign, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has put the bulk of his early primary state focus on New Hampshire. It borders Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and he has a home on Lake Winnipesaukee.
New Hampshire was meant to be the firewall in case Romney fared poorly in the first primary/caucus state of Iowa Jan. 3, a week before the Granite State’s contest. Romney held huge leads in early polls. But now former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has pulled to within 10 percentage points in New Hampshire, recent polls and Gingrich’s campaign director in the state, Andrew Hemingway, estimate, according to Politico
Gingrich also has bagged an endorsement from the state’s influential conservative newspaper the Union Leader.
So Romney is feeling the heat. Poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and the third primary state of South Carolina could mean a long slog for Romney, or even worse – a quick defeat.
Romney has a huge organizational edge. The former governor’s campaign has been on the ground in New Hampshire for almost five years and has a coordinator in most of the state’s 234 towns. Gingrich, meanwhile, opened his New Hampshire office only in the past month and has a state campaign director in Hemingway who’s never worked on a campaign before.
The former House Speaker hasn’t even visited the state since he garnered the Union Leader endorsement Nov. 27 and hasn’t released an ad there yet.
The Romney camp’s extensive one-on-one campaigning has been augmented by the endorsements of key New Hampshire Republicans -- former Gov. John Sununu and former Sens. Judd Gregg and Kelly Ayotte
So now the question is whether Gingrich’s surge, driven by strong debate performances, will translate into votes in New Hampshire despite a weak ground game there. Hemingway told Politico that Gingrich hopes to cut his 10 percentage point deficit in half by the Iowa caucuses. Then the idea is that an Iowa victory would take care of the rest of that margin.
“We’re going to find out in this election whether a real on-the-ground organization can deliver anything more than a pizza these days,” Pat Griffin, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist, told Politico. “Insurgent movements are very dangerous here. You can get every county sheriff, but I have a feeling that [Gingrich’s rise] could be bigger than that.”
Some are skeptical that the Gingrich bandwagon can keep rolling through New Hampshire.
“I don’t believe that a Gingrich-style virtual campaign can be successful in the long run,” Jaime Burnett, a New Hampshire strategist who worked for Romney four years ago but isn’t affiliated with any campaign this time around, told Politico.
“Although admittedly this cycle is slower or less intense than 2008, the candidates that have dedicated the time and effort on the ground, and also possess the superior organization, resources and, of course, message and discipline, will be successful.”
In the end, it may not be either Gingrich or Romney who determines the victor in New Hampshire, but rather one of the other candidates. If former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a moderate who has put all his eggs in the New Hampshire basket, rises above the 10 percent support level, he could steal votes from Romney, handing the election to Gingrich.
Likewise, if Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian, is able to garner 20 percent of the vote, he may pull conservative voters away from Gingrich, delivering the election to Romney. One of the other conservative candidates could do the same.
But for now, Newt’s star is on the rise.
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