Romney, who holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire polling, is still the man to beat there. But the Union Leader’s rejection of his candidacy is a blow nonetheless – particularly since Gingrich has vaulted past his GOP rivals to claim neck-and-neck status with Romney in national Republican polls as well as likely-voter surveys in other states.
The newspaper’s endorsement – spread across the top of the front page in the Sunday edition and signed by publisher Joseph W. McQuaid – carries a granite-like tone typical of a publication prominent in Republican politics. Four years ago, its endorsement of John McCain helped propel McCain past Romney to a win in New Hampshire and to his party’s nomination.
"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing," the newspaper wrote in its editorial.
"We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers,” the paper declared in obvious reference to Romney. “We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job.”
"We don't have to agree with them on every issue," the newspaper wrote about Gingrich, some of whose positions (on immigration, for example) have rankled conservatives. "We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."
Writes Maggie Haberman at Politico.com: “It's the most significant and impactful endorsement in the GOP race so far, and solidifies Gingrich's standing as the alternative to Romney as the race heads into the final pre-Iowa caucuses stretch.”
While the Union Leader’s endorsement shakes things up, Romney remains the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, a state where he owns a home and where he’s well-known because of his time as governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
The WMUR-University of New Hampshire Granite State poll last week showed Romney with 42 percent support among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. Gingrich came in second with 15 percent, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 12 percent, and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman with 8 percent support.
Gingrich’s campaign nearly crashed and burned earlier this year when most of his staff quit in protest of what they saw as his lack of on-the-ground campaigning. And the former House Speaker’s effort has been dinged by reports of lucrative consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac and the health care industry, his and his wife’s $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany’s, and continuing mention of his three marriages and acknowledged adultery.
But his campaign has regained strength and momentum – particularly in the critical state of New Hampshire.
Associated Press political writer Philip Elliott reports that Gingrich hired tea party leader Andrew Hemingway to lead his efforts, and his team has been contacting almost 1,000 voters a day.
“Hemingway's team of eight paid staffers in New Hampshire has been adding more than 100 volunteers each day, campaign officials said,” Elliott writes. “Gingrich's team already has lined up leaders in the major cities and has started identifying representatives in each ward in the state. Gingrich also has opened three offices in New Hampshire – in Manchester, the state's biggest city; in Dover in the eastern part of the state; and in the North Country's Littleton – and plans two more.”
The Union Leader’s endorsement by no means ensures success.
In 1999, the statewide newspaper endorsed Steve Forbes over George W. Bush (who publisher McQuaid referred to as “an empty suit”). Still, the newspaper’s backing carries significant weight, and not just in its formal endorsement.
"The Union Leader's style is we don't just endorse once," McQuaid told The Washington Post in 1999. "We endorse every damn day. We started endorsing Reagan in 1975 and never stopped."