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Gingrich works to bring campaign up to speed

The Republican meets with business contacts and conservative Christian groups, seeking ground troops and donations for his surging presidential bid.

December 11, 2011|By Melanie Mason and Tom Hamburger, Washington Bureau
  • Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes part in a Republican debate Saturday in Des Moines.
Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Newt Gingrich and his circle of supporters have launched a new plan to provide his reenergized presidential bid with two things it desperately needs: money and organization.

The effort relies in part on the network of donors and business contacts that Gingrich has cultivated since leaving the House in 1999, and on his unlikely alliance with Christian conservatives. It also hinges on new campaign finance rules that allow donations of unlimited size to independent groups backing candidates.

The campaign has seen a surge in fundraising recently; campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said last week that $4 million had come in since the beginning of October — $1 million more than the campaign had received in its first five months.

But a potentially more substantial cash infusion is likely to come from outside the official campaign structure, in the form of "super PACs" that can raise limitless donations to support the former House speaker and assail his rivals.

"Dealing with such a short time period, it's a benefit to have groups like ours," said Charlie Smith, whose organization, Solutions 2012, started in November and has a $10-million operating budget.

Smith declined to comment specifically on the amount the group had raised so far, or how it planned to spend that money in advance of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. But he said the group would be active both in grass-roots organizing and paid media, including television ads.

Those ads are likely to counter the efforts of Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing rival Mitt Romney that has taken aim at Gingrich's record.

Gingrich insiders have also discussed plans for a new super PAC that would be led in part by Becky Burkett, who handled donor outreach at American Solutions, the nonprofit group that Gingrich ran in Washington before the presidential campaign.

Burkett helped bring in tens of millions of dollars for the group and its sister organizations. Among the biggest supporters of American Solutions is Sheldon Adelson, the gambling magnate, who is expected to donate to the new Gingrich organizations. A spokesman for Adelson did not return a call for comment Friday.

In another bid to corral money and ground troops, Gingrich in recent days has also turned to the nation's well-organized and well-funded network of Christian conservatives.

This past week, the thrice-married former congressman had several closed-door meetings with influential Christians. On Wednesday, he met in Washington with about 60 uncommitted political and ideological leaders who were convened at Gingrich's request by conservative activist Richard Viguerie. Among those attending were Penny Nance, who leads Concerned Women for America, and Brent Bozell, a conservative writer and activist.

The 2 1/2-hour meeting included some tough questioning of Gingrich from the likes of Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative attorney general of Virginia. Attendees said some asked about Gingrich's past marital infidelity, others about his past support for big government programs such as the Medicare prescription plan that he backed as his organizations accepted funds from drug and healthcare firms interested in the legislation.

Gingrich brought one of his daughters to the meeting, during which he stated his support for the institution of marriage, according to one attendee. Gingrich was given a warm response amid indications of coming support.

"At the end he received a long-lasting standing ovation," said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a grass-roots organization that backs conservative causes. Staver, who is nonaligned, said after the meeting that "if I had to cast my vote now, it would be for Newt Gingrich."

Support from such activists is key, since Christian conservatives are highly organized in several early voting states. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, called Gingrich "a credible candidate for social conservatives."

Noting their strength in Republican contests, Reed said that "by definition he could not have surged to the top of the field without doing well among evangelicals."

Some in the evangelical community remain skeptical about Gingrich's marital history and past policy positions. Iowa pastor Cary Gordon said in an interview last week that Gingrich "terrifies" him; he helped circulate a Web video that assailed Gingrich as untrustworthy.

Other presidential candidates are competing for the same votes. On Thursday, Gingrich preceded Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a Greenville, S.C., meeting of about 400 conservative evangelical pastors.

The event was sponsored by an organization called the Renewal, which has backed other political-religious events, including a recent Texas gathering that featured Perry.

Oran P. Smith, who leads the South Carolina-based Palmetto Family Council, said the pastors in attendance were impressed with both candidates, but Gingrich drew the strongest response. He said Christian conservatives know about the former speaker's multiple marriages but are inclined to forgive — and that Christians in the state would put Gingrich over the top if balloting were held now.

"If Newt can continue to fan the flames of his newfound popularity, he will find himself with legions of people to staff his campaign operations," Smith said.

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