“I’m going to be working it,” Romney said Friday on Fox News, echoing the campaign’s new mantra. “I’m going to be earning it.”
At campaign headquarters here, top aides acknowledge the unlikelihood that Romney could become the Republican presidential nominee by acclamation — an even dimmer possibility now that Gingrich has emerged as a real threat.
But where the former House speaker has momentum and enthusiasm, Romney is counting on mechanics and regimen. Where Gingrich talks confidently of being the nominee, Romney and his aides are quietly plotting to bleed him dry in a marathon battle.
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades and his lieutenants have spent the past year building the bandwidth they believe they need to squeeze every advantage out of what one aide called the “byzantine” nomination process. With rivals fortifying their positions in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney’s team has been announcing volunteer networks in such places as Delaware, Indiana and Montana, where contests occur months after the trio of early states.
The Romney campaign believes organization will be particularly critical because of changes in the nominating process. In the past, the winner of a state — or, in some cases, the top vote-getter in each congressional district — won all the delegates. But in 2012, most of the 30 states that hold contests before April 1 will award delegates proportionally. The ones that will come after will still be winner-takes-all.
That means a candidate could lose a number of states but still remain competitive in the race to gain the majority of the 2,427 delegates at stake.
As a reminder to take the long view, Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, walks around headquarters carrying a matrix in his pocket charting which states award delegates proportionally and which are winner-takes-all.
“We’re not Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Beeson said. “We don’t have the luxury to just do one thing and do it right.”
Down the hall, campaign lawyer Katie Biber keeps a three-inch binder at her desk with memos, each marked confidential, detailing the deadlines, signature requirements and fees to get Romney’s name on the ballot in all 50 states, the District and the five U.S. territories that will hold nominating contests.
Biber recently dispatched staffers to Illinois and Virginia, whose primaries are not until March, to gather the 3,000-5,000 and 10,000 signatures required, respectively, to qualify for the ballot. (Romney’s team aims to gather double that, just to be safe.)
Team Romney learned some things the hard way during his 2008 run — for instance, that it’s easier to get signatures in Vermont during the summer, when volunteers can sign people up at farmers markets, than in the cold of winter. This year, Romney turned in his 1,000 signatures Sept. 29, months early.
“It’s like an iceberg,” Beeson said. “It’s easy to see what’s above the water — the great town hall meetings and the banners and the flags. . . . But what 95 percent of people don’t realize is the rest of the iceberg is below, and it’s all of this stuff: the ballot access and setting up the organizations in the states.”
A below-the-iceberg campaign is precisely what Gingrich is now trying to build on the fly. He recently hired Gordon C. James, an old advance hand for both presidents Bush. In a matter of weeks, James hopes to create an organization that rivals the one Romney has taken five years to assemble.
“I think we can build something that can beat him,” James said. “I’m just banking on 33 years with the Bush family and all those friends I’ve made to help us do that.
“People who are joining us are passionate about the speaker and excited to join this thing, and that’s going to pay off,” he added. “I think people who’ve been on the Romney bandwagon might be worn out already. And they
haven’t moved the ball one iota yet. His poll numbers have been static.”
But Gingrich is off to a late start. Two weeks ago, he was the only major candidate to miss the deadline for Missouri’s Feb. 1 primary, meaning his name will not appear on the ballot. It won’t affect the delegate count; the state GOP is holding caucuses in March to award delegates. But Missouri’s nonbinding primary will be one of the few contests in February, allowing participating candidates to build momentum.
In Ohio, Gingrich organizer Jonathan Petrea blasted an e-mail Friday afternoon to Republicans across the state titled “Urgent for Newt Supporters.” It asked people to sign Gingrich’s petitions by Wednesday’s deadline. Ohio’s rules are among the most complicated, requiring between 50 and 150 signatures from registered Republicans in each of the state’ s 16 congressional districts. Petrea underscored the urgency, writing: “I NEED TO KNOW BY MIDNIGHT.”
The new rules create for the Republicans a process similar to the Democratic process in 2008. That’s when Barack Obama skillfully outmaneuvered Hillary Rodham Clinton in the delegate count, in part by winning big margins in caucus states, even as she beat him in many of the big states down the stretch. And the organization Obama built during the primaries helped him mobilize voters in the general election.
Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, credits Obama with assembling the best campaign operation in modern politics.
“There are two political objectives: One is winning the nomination, and then the second is building a 50-state organization that will deliver victory in the fall campaign,” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “We’re not distracted from our main objective, which is getting the nomination, but there is a certain duality to the strategy.”
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who beat Romney in Iowa in 2008, said in an interview that many of his past supporters are “split all over the map.”
Romney, he said, was working “more quietly and strategically” to drill down and organize voters than he did four years ago. Huckabee said he has seen little evidence that most of the other candidates are focusing on “accountability” in Iowa — meaning signing up supporters and making sure they will show up to their precinct caucuses the night of Jan. 3.
One exception could be Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who has been building an operation across Iowa and who has a strategy to turn out loyal supporters in smaller caucus states to build his delegate count.
For Romney, a campaign built for distance, not speed, is a change from 2008, when he focused almost exclusively on the early states, thinking he had to light a fire in Iowa and keep throwing wood on it with victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“This campaign strategy is more focused on actual delegates,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime Romney adviser. “It was built to withstand every different candidate scenario . . . with the understanding that what matters the most is having enough delegates to win the nomination.”
Madden is doing his part at home in Washington. The deadline to submit petitions to qualify for the District’s April 3 primary is Jan. 4. For several weeks, Madden and allies have been crisscrossing the city getting registered Republican voters to sign Romney’s petitions. The city requires 296 signatures, but Romney’s team, in keeping with its just-to-be-safe strategy, aims to gather a clean 600.
Gingrich’s campaign, meanwhile, has yet to pick up its petition forms from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.