Gingrich hastens to build a network
MANCHESTER, N.H. - In a spartan office with a fake Christmas tree and a handful of chairs, the 29-year-old campaign novice who runs Newt Gingrich’s New Hampshire headquarters was wrestling with a question that the candidate’s rivals dispensed with months ago: Do we really need landline phones?
“My question is not how fast can we get them,’’ said Andrew Hemingway, who had a 24-ounce coffee and a Mountain Dew on his desk. “My question is, why? Does anybody ask ‘why’ anymore?’’
Hemingway’s dilemma over landlines - such a basic item - highlights the campaign’s scramble to build a nuts-and-bolts network with the power to harness the grass-roots enthusiasm generated by Gingrich’s feisty debate performances, then sustain it and turn it into votes.
While his chief rival, Mitt Romney, has spent months methodically building campaign operations in the early primary states, Gingrich, buoyed by his sudden rise in the polls, has only recently acquired the kind of money and support that will allow him to compete on the ground.
Six months ago, most of his aides and advisers, including his national cochairman, quit amid concerns that he was not committed to the campaign. Now, with $4 million raised this quarter, he is hiring staff, opening offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and racing to get phone lists and yard signs into the hands of volunteers.
Whether he can beat Romney may hinge on what happens in makeshift headquarters like this one, which he opened a month ago in a former chiropractor’s office on Elm Street. Without a strong campaign in the early states, some say, Gingrich could go the way of Rudy Giuliani, who was unable to translate national popularity into primary victories four years ago.
“He’s only now building an infrastructure that resembles anything like a competitive national campaign,’’ said Jamie Burnett, a Republican strategist who worked for Romney in 2008 but is unaligned this election. “He’s been slow on that and, without that, can he withstand the scrutiny that’s going to come his way? He could do it, but I’m not ready to bet on that.’’
Hemingway said he knows he has his work cut out for him.
“Everything is really, really rushed,’’ he said. “I wish I had two months.’’
On a recent rainy morning, a few paid staffers and volunteers were in the office, using netbook computers and telemarketing software to dial voters over the Internet.
“Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m a volunteer calling from the Newt Gingrich campaign, and I have a few - hello?’’ Bob Burns, the deputy state director, said into a headset, as the voter hung up.
Bob Smith, a former US senator from New Hampshire, was dressed in a green sweatshirt and khakis, calling supporters from his past campaigns. Smith is arguably Gingrich’s most prominent backer in New Hampshire, though he left office in 2003 and now spends most of the year in Florida.
“You’ve got to remember: six months ago, everybody quit, and the guy didn’t even have a campaign,’’ Smith said. “So it’s amazing; it’s exciting. What we’re doing now is just getting the infrastructure in place to harness the activity requests that are coming in for the traditional campaign stuff - whether it’s signs or town chairs - all the stuff campaigns need.’’
Despite his lack of organization, Gingrich is leading the field in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. In New Hampshire, he is closing fast on Romney, raising the possibility he could score a stunning upset in a state long considered Romney’s firewall. A CNN/Time poll released Wednesday showed Gingrich trailing Romney by single digits in the state, 35 percent to 26 percent.
But Romney is counting on months of spadework nationally and in New Hampshire to help deliver him the nomination.
Since launching his campaign in June, the former Massachusetts governor has held 17 town hall meetings in New Hampshire, visited 30 towns in all 10 counties, and organized an army of volunteers who have contacted 200,000 voters, knocked on 26,000 doors, distributed 15,000 yard signs, and blasted out 400 letters to local newspapers. Romney also has the support of most of the state’s GOP establishment and, with $14 million raised last quarter, has aired three television ads in New Hampshire.
Gingrich can only hope to dent that machine.
Since reviving his campaign a month ago, he has opened three offices in the state, hired 15 staffers, and recruited volunteer captains for the 10 counties and 20 largest cities and towns. On Nov. 27, he won the endorsement of The Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, which has since published editorials defending him against critics.
When Herman Cain suspended his campaign Dec. 3, Gingrich picked up several of his former supporters. One of them, Jack Kimball, is a former chairman of the state GOP, with strong ties to the Tea Party movement. Hemingway said 3,000 people have contacted the campaign, hoping to help in New Hampshire.
But Gingrich has not visited the state nearly as many times as Romney, and has yet to air his first ad here. He is also continuing to sell his books at promotional events along the campaign trail. Today, he will dip into the state for several campaign stops, including a debate with Jon Huntsman.
Gingrich could tap the millions of dollars he earned through his Washington consulting business. But R.C. Hammond, a spokesman, said, “It’s an unnecessary consideration at this point’’ because Gingrich’s fund-raising “is in good shape.’’
Hemingway, who runs a consulting company that helps businesses raise their profiles on Twitter, was hired Oct. 21. Previously, he was chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, a conservative group.
As a devotee of social media, he said, he was reluctant to buy landlines because it seemed cheaper and easier to use cellphones, online calling services, and Facebook. But he eventually relented, so the office staff wouldn’t have to use cellphones.
“I’ve never run a campaign before,’’ Hemingway said. “I’ve never been part of a presidential campaign. So I don’t even know what these guys have done before. I don’t know. So I’m just doing what makes sense to me.’’
He helped launch the campaign’s website, NewtHampshire.com, and said he comes to work “with the complete 100 percent belief that I am working on a winning campaign.’’
“Obviously, it’s tied to what Newt’s doing nationally,’’ he said. “It’s not just us. But some of that has to help, that we’ve established a presence here in the state. Everybody in the state knows we’re here now, and we have a field game.’’
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.