NASHUA, N.H. — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich touched down in New Hampshire on Monday to assume the title of surging presidential candidate — and to try to impart to it a staying power that has eluded those who have risen and stumbled before.
The fifth Republican contender to climb to the top of public polls this year, Gingrich took advantage of the moment to again announce his plans to reform Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and various programs for the poor. Campaign money is coming in, he said, and a staff that shrank to a dozen after an implosion in June has grown to 40. Gingrich is even allowing himself to look ahead to a general-election contest against President Obama, because, he said, “one of the reasons people support me is because they can see me debating Obama.”
Gingrich’s challenge is to keep his momentum going a bit longer than the other Republicans who have vied for the role of chief rival to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Gingrich entered the contest with enough baggage to prompt skepticism that his campaign could go anywhere. He had an extramarital affair with the woman who is now his third wife, and as House speaker he was sanctioned for ethical violations. More recently, he has had to fend off questions about a report that he received between $1.6 million and $1.8 million in consulting fees for advising Freddie Mac, a federally backed housing finance giant that is despised by conservatives.
“He’s got obvious vulnerabilities,” said James McCloskey, 38, who came to see Gingrich in Manchester on Monday. “Between Freddie Mac and his marriages, he’s going to have to answer some tough questions. But he’s an absolutely brilliant mind.”
Gingrich said Monday that he is better positioned than his rivals to last. The way he sees it, his decades in Washington don’t make him an insider, because he offers an anti-establishment message that appeals to conservatives. And because of his years in Washington, he has the policy background — and a Rolodex of national contacts — to help him attract votes.
“I don’t take Washington seriously,” Gingrich said. “I don’t go in and say, ‘What are the norms in Washington?’ I say, ‘Let’s establish new norms.’ ”
Gingrich’s proposal to reform entitlements was a case in point. His plan was an amalgamation of ideas he has already broached and that Republicans have supported in the past — creating private savings account in lieu of the current Social Security program, empowering states to administer Medicaid with federal block grants. But Gingrich also took it a step further. Food stamps must go, he said. Public housing, too. Kids should take jobs in their schools — both to acquire a work ethic and to replace janitors whose union contracts pay them too much.
On a day when Romney was campaigning just a few miles down the road, Gingrich was also, more subtly, going after his chief rival for being a more status-quo candidate.
“I have a DNA model in my head,” Gingrich said. “What I want to do is different from traditional politics and government.”
Gingrich’s surge is a little different from those of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and businessman Herman Cain, who were relatively unknown when they shot up in the polls. Gingrich did the opposite. His campaign fell apart just days after he launched it, torn by internal disagreements and revelations that Gingrich had owed the jeweler Tiffany’s as much as $500,000.
He also angered many conservatives by labeling the House Republicans’ Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering,” making the kind of over-the-top comment that many observers say has always been his undoing.
“In a normal environment, he wouldn’t have been able to come back to the top of the heap,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist who worked with Bachmann’s campaign this year. “This has been such an unusual year.”
Gingrich has recovered slowly, largely by impressing voters during debates — the very medium that has hurt the fortunes of some of his rivals, notably Perry. After the first few debates, conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh called Gingrich the only “grown-up” in the room — a perception that many rank-and-file Republicans appear to have come to share.
“I’ve watched every single debate,” said Amie Martin, 41, a marketing professional from Nashua who came to Manchester to hear Gingrich give his speech on entitlements. “I’ve been saying all year, ‘Look, you’ve got to listen to Newt. He’s always spot-on.’ The more people listen to Newt, the more people see that he makes sense.”
Other strategies helped Gingrich survive the lean months of his campaign.
Through his now-dissolved think tank, American Solutions, Gingrich was able to build a network of supporters who were active within the tea party. They helped arrange campaign events in Iowa and elsewhere. Gingrich also brought his wife, Callista, on many of his trips — and she was regularly a hit with the crowds.
“We didn’t have any staff until a week ago,” said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, recalling the lean summer months when the entire staff — and the Gingriches — would stay with Greg Ganske, a former congressman from Des Moines, every time they campaigned in Iowa.
Some of those who resigned in the spring went on to join Perry’s operation. But others rejoined Gingrich this month. Gingrich has bolstered his staff in Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, and, unlike many contenders, has a notable operation in South Carolina. He is launching Web sites tailored to every state, including “NewtHampshire.com,” which he said signed up 250 volunteers just last week.
“What about yard signs?” Martin, the Gingrich supporter, asked the campaign’s New Hampshire volunteer coordinator Monday.
“Get back to me on Wednesday!” was the reply. “We’ve got 4,000 coming in.”
Still, Gingrich has a lot of ground to make up. After the last filing report in October, his campaign said it was deep in debt, whereas Romney had nearly $15 million in cash on hand.
Hammond, the campaign spokesman, said, “Newt said it would take two and a half months. He said not to pay attention to the coverage because it was going to be awful, and to continue to plow ahead. ‘We need to focus one day at a time. Focus on one day, and do one thing, and we will get going again.’ And he was right.”