Newt Gingrich's surge to the top of the Republican presidential field is attracting donations and volunteers to his minimalist campaign. But Gingrich still lacks a staple of successful bids for national office: a big-name endorsement.
No prominent Republican leaders have jumped aboard Gingrich's growing but still-small bandwagon.
It is a reflection of the skepticism with which many top members of the party have viewed the former U.S. House speaker's rise in opinion polls, and adds to questions over whether Gingrich's upstart campaign will have the resources to endure a primary battle that could last into June.
By contrast, Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the longtime leader of the Republican race before Gingrich broke away, has unfurled a long list of influential supporters.
They include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and scores of state and local officials as well as Wall Street donors.
Gingrich received a nod of approval from the Union-Leader, the largest newspaper in New Hampshire, a dominant state in the nominating process because it holds an early primary on Jan. 10.
But when it comes to major Republican office holders, "I think people are waiting and seeing to see if (Gingrich) is going to falter like so many of these other supposed front-runners" such as businessman Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry, said Republican strategist Keith Appell.
"So people are keeping their powder dry a little bit."
Boosted by strong debate performances, Gingrich became the Republican front-runner with an unconventional campaign run by only a few aides and his wife, Callista. His rise came after a staff exodus last summer seemed to have killed his campaign.
Gingrich's attraction to potential endorsers almost certainly is clouded by his past in Washington.
Gingrich, 68, alienated some Republicans during his tumultuous tenure as House speaker in the 1990s. He left Congress in 1999, two years after paying $300,000 to close an ethics investigation.
He also has a long history of making provocative statements that could alienate independent voters, such as when he recently referred to Palestinians as an "invented" people. And he has been married three times and admitted to extramarital affairs, a hurdle for him to overcome with some conservatives.
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
While it has not yielded a marquee endorsement, Gingrich's jump in the polls is beginning to pay off in other ways.
A former Gingrich aide said this week she had founded a SuperPAC for Gingrich, which is able to raise unlimited funds to back his campaign. And a Gingrich spokesman told the Wall Street Journal the campaign hopes to bring in $10 million in the three months ending Dec. 31.
That would far outstrip Gingrich's efforts in the third quarter of this year, when he failed to reach $1 million in fundraising - a paltry amount for a national campaign that must run TV ads to be competitive.
However, Gingrich's fundraising goal would still amount to only about half the $20 million his chief rival, Romney, is projected to bring in from October through December.
More good news for Gingrich: His staff is expanding and volunteers are signing on.
The campaign said Tuesday that 60 officials from Gingrich's home state of Georgia were endorsing him, as did two Tea Party groups in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Jan. 21.
"Newt is the most electable conservative who can clearly articulate the Tea Party agenda of lower taxes, free enterprise, smaller government and state sovereignty," Laurens County (S.C.) Tea Party President Dianne Belsom wrote in a statement endorsing Gingrich and distributed by his campaign.
Gingrich's lack of prominent supporters raises doubts about his campaign's longevity. But if he is successful in continuing to cast himself as a more conservative alternative to Romney, his campaign would epitomize the unusual nature of this year's race, analysts said.
Romney seems unable to attract more than 25 percent support from primary voters despite being widely seen as the candidate to beat among Republicans.
"This is an unconventional environment, which is why surprising things are happening," said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "And if Newt is the nominee, he may be the most unconventional nominee in American history."
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed Gingrich with a 10-point lead over Romney among Republicans nationwide, but showed he would fare worse in a general election contest against Obama.
Romney's team has been blasting Gingrich as an unreliable conservative and a Washington insider. And Obama's team has shifted to target Gingrich just as much as it has been going after Romney.
Romney's SuperPAC is financing a blizzard of negative advertising against Gingrich in Iowa, where another Republican candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, is also assembling an army of volunteers in an effort to win the state's Republican caucuses on Jan. 3.
Conventional wisdom is that no Republican can win the nomination without capturing the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire, where Romney leads in the polls. Gingrich had a double-digit lead over Romney and Paul in recent Iowa polls.
For Gingrich, "the question will be, can somebody with not a lot of money stand that kind of massive negative TV attacks? In the past, negative TV attacks have worked, so we'll see," said Richard Schwarm, a longtime Iowa Republican activist and former chairman of the Iowa Republican party.
Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa, said Gingrich's supporters believe he is the best candidate to take on Obama because he is combative.
"There's a group of Republicans who really want to defeat President Obama. There's a sense that a little bit of excitement goes a long way," she said. "Any time (Gingrich) says something that's provocative, he gets attention. A lot of attention." (Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham)
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