Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, surging in the latest opinion polls, declared plans to challenge Barack Obama in every state in next year's election, and began running his first television ad to push toward his party's nomination.
However, Gingrich on Monday also found himself defending the state of his campaign and his own comments about poor children.
"I do not suggest children until about 14 or 15 years of age do heavy, dangerous janitorial work," Gingrich told reporters. "On the other hand, there are a number of things done to clean buildings that are not heavy or dangerous."
The U.S. economy remains the top issue in next year's election, and Obama is vulnerable on the issue because unemployment, while down slightly, remains at a damaging 8.6 percent. Also, millions of Americans have lost their homes to mortgage foreclosures in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in the waning months of George W. Bush's presidency.
Polling shows Obama's favorable rating at an all-time low, yet in head-to-head matchups with the leading Republican contenders the incumbent is either leading or in a statistical tie.
Gingrich chose heavily Democratic New York City to announce plans to campaign all across the country — not just in traditionally Republican or swing states — next fall against Obama. He packed the rest of the day with fundraisers and meetings, including one with Donald Trump, who flirted with a presidential bid himself and has sought to play a role in the Republican selection process.
Gingrich has drawn fire over the past week for suggesting that poor children as young as 9 years old should work at least part time cleaning their schools in order to learn about work.
As Gingrich volunteers scrambled in some states to meet deadlines to get his name on ballots, the candidate dismissed the notion that his team wasn't up to the task of waging a credible challenge against the better-funded, better-organized Mitt Romney.
With only one month until the first presidential votes are cast, the Republican race has seemed to narrow to a contest between Gingrich and Romney.
Each spent the day wooing donors, Gingrich on the East Coast and Romney on the West Coast, as the hunt for cash intensified ahead of the string of costly contests that begin Jan. 3 in Iowa. The two will cross paths Wednesday as the candidates all convene in Washington to court Jewish voters and again Saturday at a debate in Iowa, the first of three planned for December.
This one is shaping up as a pivotal debate, given that Gingrich's recent comeback has been fueled largely by a string of strong performances in which he demonstrated policy expertise and was able to appear statesmanlike while steering clear of criticizing his Republican rivals. He is the latest Republican candidate to enjoy a burst of momentum and he's working to prove that, unlike the others who have risen and fallen, he's a serious contender with staying power.
To that end, Monday was supposed to be a day for the former U.S. House speaker to capitalize on businessman Herman Cain's departure from the race and his own soaring poll numbers, making a good showing for up-for-grabs tea party supporters.
Gingrich's expected show of force didn't go exactly as planned, and the day ended up underscoring the challenges he now faces since going from the back of the pack to the front.
Twice on Monday he tried to explain what he had meant about poor kids working.
He said his original point had been "distorted" to make him look insensitive. The idea, Gingrich said, would be "to get them into the world of work, get them into the opportunity to earn money, to get them into the habit of showing up and realizing that effort is rewarded and America is all about the work ethic."
He said he had persuaded Trump to mentor a group of children from New York City's poorest schools.
"I thought it was a great idea," said Trump, who hosts the reality show "Celebrity Apprentice." ''We're going to be picking 10 young wonderful children and make them 'apprenti.' We're going to have a little fun with it."
While praising Gingrich, Trump said he would wait to endorse a candidate until after he hosts a debate in late December.
In Iowa, Gingrich's campaign rolled out a 60-second ad that projected sunny optimism.
"Some people say the America we know and love is a thing of the past. I don't believe that, because working together I know we can rebuild America," he says in the ad laden with Americana, down to a white picket fence, the Statue of Liberty and the American Stars and Stripes.
Romney, meanwhile, picked up another endorsement from the party's political establishment. Former Vice President Dan Quayle plans to announce his support for the former Massachusetts governor Tuesday afternoon at an event in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where Quayle has a home.
Quayle's endorsement helps illustrate establishment Republican backing for Romney, who has been trying to consolidate support among party stalwarts despite repeated challenges from conservative alternatives.