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Newt Gingrich’s risky Super Tuesday strategy

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Newt Gingrich is handing Rick Santorum a golden opportunity to prove himself as the true anti-Romney conservative before Super Tuesday.

So far, the former House speaker’s campaign has shown little inclination to play in the three states that will hold their contests before March 6, a risky strategy that could pretty easily backfire.

That may be changing — Gingrich has hired some staff in Washington and is now pledging to visit Michigan — but his campaign is a little late to the game, which could play into Santorum’s hands.

Gingrich would prefer to show his mettle in states that should be more friendly to his candidacy — specifically Southern states that will hold contests on Super Tuesday like Georgia (his home state) and Tennessee and a week later in Alabama and Mississippi. But before then, he’ll have to remain relevant to the process, which could be a tough slog.

Republican presidential candidate and former House speaker Newt Gingrich tours the World Ag Expo on Tuesday in Tulare, Calif. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee/Eric Paul Zamora)

Thus far, Gingrich has not visited or run a full-throated campaign in Michigan or Washington, which will hold a primary and a caucus, respectively, the week before Super Tuesday. Santorum and Mitt Romney, meanwhile, have already been running ads in those states for days.

Gingrich seems to be suggesting that he’s not conceding those states, but if he makes a half-hearted effort, Santorum could make a major statement about the campaign ahead.

We saw in Missouri’s “beauty contest” of a primary Feb. 7 what Santorum can do head-to-head against Romney, beating him by 30 points in the meaningless but still telling contest in which Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot.

Santorum also won concurrent caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado that day in contests where Gingrich similarly wasn’t campaigning too hard or expending many resources.

We could see a replay of that in Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28 and then the Washington caucuses on March 3.

But this time, it could be even more damning. That’s because, while the Feb. 7 contests weren’t seen as terribly important because they were caucuses, you can’t say that about Arizona and Michigan.

“If Santorum wins four states in a row, then Newt Gingrich’s campaign will be crispier than a McDonald’s French Fry at the Fukushima Power Plant,” said GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood. “Gingrich can’t allow this to continue and still raise money to pay for coffee — much less a campaign.”

We saw in the 2008 campaign what happens when Republican tried to weather poor performances in the name of scoring a victory later in the contest. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to wait until Florida for his big entree — largely because he had no traction in the earlier states — but he ran out of juice before he could get there.

Gingrich seems to be relying on a similar wait-and-see strategy.

If Santorum can win one or two of the next three states without Gingrich putting his best foot forward, it will be a pretty convincing piece of evidence that Santorum would stand a good chance of beating Romney head-to-head.

Indeed, even if Gingrich doesn’t feel like he can win states like Michigan or Washington, it may be worth his time to run interference on Santorum’s potential victory — if for no other reason than to prolong doubts about the former Pennsylvania senator’s anti-Romney prowess.

It’s really the only play Gingrich has right now. As it stands, Santorum could severely marginalize the former House speaker by the time Super Tuesday rolls around — provided he wins Michigan, of course.

At the same time, a lot of this boils down to money. We don’t know exactly how much Gingrich has, but it’s assumed that a big reason he’s not playing much in the next few states is because he is short of funds.

If that’s indeed the case, he’s trying to conserve funds for Super Tuesday and may not want to waste time and money in states he knows he can’t win.

The question is whether those resources will even matter by that point. If Santorum has a strong week prior to Super Tuesday, any Gingrich effort on that date could be pretty much moot.

Santorum contrasts bailout stance with Romney: Santorum said Thursday that the difference between Romney and him is that he has consistently been against all bailouts — not just the auto bailout.

“Gov. Romney supported the bailout of Wall Street and decided not to support the bailout of Detroit,” Santorum said in Detroit. “My feeling was that we should not support — the government should not be involved in bailouts, period. I think that’s a much more consistent position.”

Attempting to take advantage of Romney’s demonstrated troubles with less-affluent voters, Santorum tried to position himself as the ally of workers.

“I have no problem with private-sector unions,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “From my perspective, unions are frankly one of those median institutions and have served in America a legitimate purpose over time in the private sector. I don’t feel quite as warm and fuzzy about public sector unions.”

Maine GOP recounting votes: It appears Romney could possibly have a second caucus victory overturned.

Politico reported Thursday that the Maine Republican Party was recounting votes from its caucuses after results posted by the state party on Saturday were missing votes from many localities. Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) campaign cried foul after Romney was declared the winner by 194 votes despite the missing votes.

The state party said Thursday votes from postpones caucuses in Washington County this Saturday would be included in the totals and that the party would “reconfirm” totals from other areas.

Even if Washington County and other new votes are included, though, it will be difficult for Paul to snatch the victory. Even though Romney led by fewer than 200 votes, the margin was around 3 percent of the total ballots cast in the extremely low-turnout race.

Fixbits:

For once, President Obama’s campaign targets someone beside Romney: Santorum.

Jon Huntsman, who is backing Romney, differs from him on China policy in some pretty strong terms.

Romney details a prank he once played.

Rick Perry is asking the Federal Election Commission if he can convert leftover cash from his presidential campaign into a super PAC.

New Jersey’s legislature passes a gay marriage bill, which Gov. Chris Christie (R) has said he will veto.

It looks like it will be Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton vs. former congressman Bob Etheridge the Democratic primary for governor of North Carolina. Rep. Brad Miller (D) said Thursday that he won’t run.

Brad Schneider leads the Democratic primary to face freshman Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) in a Democratic-leaning district.

A Nevada state senator takes one for the team — in a major way.

Potential retiree Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) gets a primary challenger.

Must-reads:

Obama balancing the 99 percent and the 1 percent” -- Ken Thomas, AP

Mitt Romney reframes himself as a ‘severely conservative’ governor” — David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

In Mormon files, researcher Helen Radkey seeks to cause a headache for Romney” — Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

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