By STEVE PEOPLES
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Back from the political dead, Newt Gingrich has momentum on his side just a month before the first voting in the GOP nomination fight. But he has never fully rebuilt his organization after almost his entire team quit in June. And his fundraising is questionable at best.
Look no further than 968 Elm St. in Manchester to see the challenge he faces as he goes up against the well-funded and well-organized Mitt Romney, here and elsewhere.
Gingrich’s New Hampshire campaign headquarters has been open for a month, but the phone system isn’t hooked up. Offices sit empty. And the former House speaker has entrusted his success in the first-in-the-nation primary state to a 29-year-old tea party activist with virtually no political experience.
“I’ve never worked on any campaign before,” state director Andrew Hemmingway, who flirted with a congressional bid last year, said Friday. “A campaign with resources and time and money stands back and says, ‘Who are the best people for these positions?’ We are a campaign fueled by passion. Everybody in my office is an activist.”
There are similar situations for Gingrich in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. He is trying to resurrect an organization left for dead in June because of staff defections and a mound of debt. He’s relying upon a skeleton crew of longtime advisers — making most decisions himself — while giving untested political operatives in key states unusual autonomy to craft strategy details. And with the Iowa caucuses less than five weeks away, they’re scurrying to play catch-up with the nuts-and-bolts grunt work typically needed to transform poll numbers into election-day success.
In some cases, they’re making it up as they go.
“Everybody’s empowered to do their own thing. Newt told me the other night, ‘You own New Hampshire. When in doubt, charge. Go with your instincts,”’ Hemmingway said. “I’ve never done this before, but it’s not rocket science.”
Maybe not. But it takes both money and manpower to get people to the polls on a week night in the dead of winter — as will be needed in Iowa.
“That’s the big question of this cycle: Does momentum in the polls trump an organizational approach?” said Phil Musser, a longtime Republican political consultant. “The reality is that the baseline need for a measure of infrastructure will never change in politics.”
And in Iowa success requires a strong enough organization to recruit and mobilize 99 county precinct captains. Two weeks ago, Gingrich rehired two top Iowa staffers who quit in June amid the mass exodus that nearly scuttled his campaign.
A prominent voice in national politics for more than two decades, Gingrich says he knows he’s behind in organization.
But he’s banking on the somewhat untested notion that he can stay hot — and emerge the nominee — by pushing conservative policies and sharp anti-Obama rhetoric, while driving people to the caucuses through social and news media, rather than pure organization.
“It’s an interesting test,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s better to peak than it is to fade. But we will generate enough new material — we’re not going to fade.”
Since leaving office more than a decade ago, Gingrich has fostered a strong grass-roots following through paid speeches as well as books he’s written and films he’s made.
Now, his poll numbers have hit new highs.
He’s replaced the embattled Herman Cain in second place among New Hampshire voters in a University of New Hampshire poll released last week. And he’s locked in a tight race with — or leading — Romney in other early voting states. But some independent Republican operatives aren’t convinced he can maintain those numbers, particularly without a strong team to support them as he goes up against Romney’s strength.
The former Massachusetts governor has been building a presidential organization for the better part of six years.
He plans to show it off this weekend, hosting a New Hampshire rally dubbed, “Earn it with Mitt,” featuring 500 volunteers who plan to knock on 5,000 doors, make 12,000 phone calls and distribute 5,000 yard signs to voters across the state.
Romney, who typically ignores his Republican rivals in favor of targeting President Barack Obama, sharpened his criticism of Gingrich this week.
“I must admit that Newt has had a very extensive, long record of working in Washington with various governmental and non-governmental agencies, and I just don’t think that’s the background that’s ideally suited, one, to replace Barack Obama, and number two, to lead the country,” Romney said on Fox News Channel.
He also hinted at his own organizational superiority.
“Let me tell you, over the last year, they’ve been a lot of people that have been real high in the polls that are not high in the polls anymore,” Romney said. “So you know there’s this funny thing in America, it’s called the election, and to win the election, you’ve got to earn it.”
Despite being behind, there are signs that Gingrich’s organization is growing.
He has five paid staff in Iowa, still fewer than most of his rivals, and, Hemmingway says, 11 paid staff in New Hampshire, roughly the same as Romney. In South Carolina, Gingrich has nine — far more than any other candidate and an indication of the priority he’s putting on that state.
“We always thought that we’d be competitive in Iowa, competitive in New Hampshire, with the chance of winning South Carolina,” said longtime Gingrich adviser and former Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Walker. “All the grunt work necessary to make sure you can compete for real takes organization. And that’s the organization we’re in the process of putting in place.”
Walker also says Gingrich’s use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter has allowed him to maintain direct contact with a huge network of supporters at very little cost.
That’s a good thing, particularly because Gingrich has struggled to raise money for much of the year. And there’s little sign he can afford to begin running television advertising, like most of his rivals.
Although his team says fundraising has improved in recent weeks, Gingrich trailed during the most recent July-through-September fundraising quarter. He raised roughly $807,000 in contributions during that period, while Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry brought in more than $14 million apiece.
At the same time, Gingrich was by far the most in debt.
He owed more than $1.1 million for racking up consultant fees, direct mail services and office supplies, federal election reports show. Those expenses included more than $5,000 for a “Hispanic outreach consultant” and $724 for “social media consultation.”
Former staffer Rick Tyler was among those who quit back in June citing doubt that Gingrich was committed to running a serious campaign.
“The lessons learned were most likely learned by his advisers who left that Newt might actually know what he’s doing. I include myself,” Tyler said. “He asks lots of people what they think, but ultimately he’s running the show; he’s running the strategy.”
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Iowa and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this