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As Gingrich Surges, He Has Catching Up To Do In N.H.

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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's surge to the top tier of the GOP presidential field has been sudden.

That's put him squarely in the media spotlight — Gingrich has been buffeted for the past several days over his consulting work for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. But it's also highlighted the challenge he faces in early-voting states like New Hampshire, where he lacks a traditional campaign structure.

Gingrich predicted victory when he opened his state campaign headquarters in Manchester last week. But he also told supporters that winning wouldn't be easy.

"The fact is, I'm clearly the underdog in New Hampshire. We are going to be coming from behind," he said. "But we have a chance to really change history right here. Not in South Carolina, not in Florida, not in Nevada — right here."

The fact that Gingrich is here at all is remarkable. His early campaign seemed one long misstep: Conservatives lit into him when he called Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich was pilloried in the media for holding a six-figure line of credit with the high-end jeweler Tiffany. His top national staff resigned in June, after Gingrich left the campaign trail to cruise the Greek isles. And as recently as last month, his campaign was more than $1 million in the red.

But after some strong debates and blunders by rivals, Gingrich is now the latest alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

'We Need The Best'

"Newt Gingrich is the best," says Wink Van Nowe, a GOP activist with Tea Party ties. "He's knowledgeable, he's been there, he's effective. We need the best."

Van Nowe isn't alone in citing Gingrich's experience in Washington as a plus. That speaks to Gingrich's resume, which includes 20 years in Congress. But it's also an unexpected twist in an election where gaffes by anti-Washington candidates like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain have left many conservatives worried.

"You can't have those kind of bloops in a big debate and go against President Obama, who's a great orator, and do well — that's just not going to happen," says John Preve, a tax accountant from Concord. "I would really enjoy seeing Mr. Gingrich debate President Obama. ... I think it would make good politics."

Still, getting there will be a steep climb. Andrew Hemingway, Gingrich's New Hampshire state campaign director, says the local math is tough.

"I was hired on Oct. 21. ... We have about 18,000 votes, we think, probably secured. ... We need another 69,000 to 70,000 votes, we think, to win the primary," he says. "So I've got to find a thousand voters every day."

New And Old Models

Gingrich has just five staffers on the ground in New Hampshire. All are recent hires. The campaign says it has set up three offices, with two more in the works. Hemingway also says Team Gingrich will rely heavily on a social media site called NewtHampshire.

"I can't hire enough staff to go and to run this the old way," he says. "There is no way we could do enough, so the only way to do it is to leverage the technology we have and basically create a new model."

But Mike Dennehy, who helped pilot John McCain to New Hampshire primary wins in 2000 and 2008, says the old model could also work for Gingrich, particularly in a year when campaigns don't have big staffs on the ground and most top candidates have done less retail campaigning.

"Newt Gingrich is tailor-made for the New Hampshire town hall-meeting-style campaign," Dennehy says. "So if he were to come here to New Hampshire [and] have town hall meetings — three or four a day for eight or nine days — I think he could make a huge impact."

Dennehy adds, though, that at this point, the contest is for second place, behind statewide front-runner Romney. Dennehy says candidates can claim success as long as they keep Romney's margin to 15 points.

"They'll head into South Carolina with a little bit of momentum ... and if they are within striking distance of Mitt Romney, then it throws the entire race on its head," he says.

Gingrich is expected to return to New Hampshire next week. He has promised supporters he will be in the state often. The former House speaker will probably need to put in time locally to prove his theory of this election: "I believe this race will come down to two people."

If Gingrich is right, the next couple of months will reveal whether he is one of them.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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