The Union Leader endorsed Newt Gingrich on the front page of its Sunday edition. (Union Leader / Newseum )
The New Hampshire Union Leader, a powerful voice in the early voting state, endorsed Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential primary Sunday, saying the nation needs his "innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership."
The newspaper's endorsement is among the most coveted in the state. The relatively early support — six weeks before the state's primary — could threaten what has been a consistent, comfortable lead for Mitt Romney.
Romney is unmentioned in the paper's front-page endorsement. But, the board writes, readers know "that we don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers."
"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," the paper writes. "We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."
Romney still has the support of much of the state's political elite, including former Gov. John Sununu, former Sen. Judd Gregg, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
But the Union Leader endorsement is a strong platform for Gingrich to have. When the paper endorsed John McCain in the 2008 primary, it ran a series of front-page opinion pieces alternately praising the Arizona senator and criticizing Romney.
The timing is fortuitous for Gingrich, after a much-criticized answer on illegal immigration at Tuesday's Republican debate. Gingrich may not be "the perfect candidate," the paper writes now. But voters "too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running."
Drew Cline, the paper's editorial editor, told CNN on Sunday that Romney was a "a very play-it-safe candidate."
"Imagine what that would look like as president," he said. "We need a candidate that is bold in his leadership, has a vision for where he wants to take the country, and knows how to get there."
The Gingrich campaign called the Union Leader "one of the country’s most important conservative barometer[s]," and said it was "among the first to champion Ronald Reagan."
"Newt Gingrich has solidified his hold as the conservative front-runner in the 2012 presidential race," the campaign said.
A WMUR Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire from Nov. 15 to Nov. 20 found Romney leading the pack in New Hampshire with 42% support from likely Republican primary voters. Gingrich was second at 15%, followed by Ron Paul at 12% and Jon Huntsman at 8%.