By the time Newt Gingrich finally arrived at Hy-Vee Supermarket in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, the crowd had overflowed the store’s small cafe, past the flower shop and into the aisles.
“He’s got most of the things I’m looking for,” said Bruce Weber, a 70-year-old retiree who waited more than 45 minutes to see the former House speaker.
Yet even as Gingrich has top standing in the polls, large crowds and plenty of buzz in the Republican presidential primary, he’s still struggling with the basics of his late- surging campaign.
Trailing in cash, he can’t put up commercials to defend himself against attack ads. After a walkout by his senior staff in June, he needs to hire replacements quickly as important campaign-filing deadlines approach.
“What we’re talking about here is a candidate who never really had the opportunity to put a national team in place and is now playing catch-up money-wise and organizationally,” said Corey Lewandowski, a Republican strategist and New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group that is staying neutral in the race. “The question for him now is, has his campaign alre ady peaked?”
Gingrich’s Wednesday schedule offered a snapshot of a campaign enjoying a rapid ascent, while still struggling against longer- term headwinds.
First, he was scheduled to receive endorsements from House speakers in the nation’s two earliest primary states, Kraig Paulsen of Iowa and William O’Brien of New Hampshire. Later, Gingrich will attend an evening rally in Arlington, Va., where he will make a last push to gather the 10,000 signatures he needs by Thursday to qualify for the ballot — his latest near-miss with a primary elect ion filing deadline.
“The challenge for us is to get the popular support organized fast enough,” Gingrich said in Davenport. “We barely made it in Ohio; we may barely make it Thursday in Virginia.”
Gingrich’s tight finish in meeting Ohio’s Dec. 7 ballot- qualifying deadline came about three weeks after Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, reported on the NH Journal website that the former speaker’s campaign submitted a sloppily written slate of 27 proposed delegates — 3 short of the state’s guideline — to qualify for the Jan. 10 primary. Former Massachus etts governor Mitt Romney and several of the other candidates turned in typewritten lists of 40 delegates.
A few days later, Gingrich failed to qualify for Missouri’s Feb. 7 primary, a decision he later told reporters was a deliberate one in keeping with his policy of not participating in nonbinding contests. Neither Iowa’s nor New Hampshire’s races bind delegates, but Gingrich is campaigning actively in both places.
He told reporters Tuesday he would be on the ballot everywhere he needed to be and conceded the advantages held by Romney.
“He’s been running for president for six years; he’s raised billions of dollars,” Gingrich told reporters in Ottumwa. “Of course, he has a huge organization advantage.”
His campaign, by contrast, is ramping up after a summer slump during which his poll numbers stalled in single digits well into the fall.
In Iowa, Gingrich is still looking for precinct captains, who mobilize supporters to attend the Jan. 3 caucuses. On a Saturday tele-town hall, his campaign asked supporters interested in the job to “press one.”
After spending much of the summer focused on getting their campaign message out through social media, Gingrich’s nine full- time aides in Iowa are now working to set up the standard infrastructure of a statewide campaign. His campaign plans an eight-day bus tour through 44 Iowa cities starting Tuesday.
“It was very non-traditional,” said Katie Koberg, an Iowa senior adviser who rejoined the campaign in late-November after quitting as part of the mass staff resignation in June. “Now we’re doing some traditional” campaigning.
Gingrich’s New Hampshire office opened on Nov. 11, and he now has 15 paid aides in the state and five field offices, said spokesman Mattheau LeDuc.
Still, Gingrich’s team sometimes seems unprepared for the crowds that flood his events. Aides set out about a dozen chairs for a Dec. 19 event at a security company in Davenport, leaving most of the several hundred voters there standing.
In contrast, at a Romney event in New Hampshire Dec. 20, three aides with laptops sat at a check-in table typing in the names and addresses of attendees who hadn’t RSVP’d, building on the campaign’s mailing list and roster of potential volunteers.
The Gingrich campaign’s structural weaknesses could become more pronounced if the nominating contest becomes a protracted one, which new Republican Party rules are likely to produce since early states will award delegates proportionally.
“The challenge for Gingrich is that nationally he must either have enough money to play into the deep states or get a bounce out of Iowa,” said Steve Grubbs, a Davenport-based strategist and former state Republican Party chairman who was Iowa chairman of Herman Cain’s now-suspended presidential bid. “That’s why he’s got to turn things around in Iowa quickly or he may be relegated to b eing an intellectual voice in the race.”
Right now, Grubbs said, Iowa is “Gingrich’s to lose, but he needs to bounce instead of continuing his decline” because he can’t answer the television attacks against him.
As of Tuesday, Gingrich had spent just one-fifth of the amount of money on advertising promoting his candidacy as his opponents and their backers had spent attacking him and his record, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York-based company that tracks the expenditures.
Restore our Future, a political action committee supporting Romney, had spent about $670,000 on commercials criticizing Gingrich as someone with “a ton of baggage,” and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had spent about $50,000 on spots charging the former speaker with “serial hypocrisy.”
Gingrich, who has pledged to stay positive, has spent about $136,000 on his commercials. He has run two in the state and plans to air a third, Christmas-themed ad over the weekend.
“Whatever organization he can cobble together, he needs to do that, but his team had such a late start that that will be very difficult,” Grubbs said. “If you don’t have an organization, then what you must do is to win by enough to make up for lack of an organization.”
Knowing he can’t saturate the market with attack ads, Gingrich is focusing his criticism on those running them against him.
“Unanswered negative ads work in the short run unless they bounce back and discredit the person who is running them,” he told reporters. “You now understand my entire strategy for the next two weeks.”
With assistance from John McCormick in Iowa, Greg Giroux in Washington and Jonathan D. Salant in New Hampshire.