WASHINGTON — So far in the emerging presidential campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the hit-and-missed candidate.
He's a hit among many prospective GOP voters for his performance during nationally televised debates, where he's provided attention-getting answers to big-idea questions.
But while he's impressed on TV, Gingrich has been largely missing in action from the campaign trail.
The lack of a visible Gingrich campaign apparatus in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina has caused some in the Republican Party to wonder whether he's seriously running for president or participating only to bolster the Gingrich brand to boost his book sales and speaking fees.
"I've heard from the Michele Bachmann campaign, Rick Perry's folks, Jon Huntsman's campaign, Herman Cain's — everyone except the Gingrich campaign," said Phillip Bowers, chairman of the Pickens County Republican Party in South Carolina. "Newt's a smart man. I'm sure he has a strategy. I just don't know what it is."
Jennifer Horn, a Republican activist in New Hampshire, echoed Bowers' sentiments. Horn, founder of a non-profit, small-government advocacy group called We the People, said she recently reached out to local contacts representing the Republican presidential candidates to invite them to a series of candidate forums. She struggled to find a Gingrich contact in a state that hosts the nation's first primary.
"It's just discouraging, because there are a lot of people here who would like to hear more from him because of his performance in the debates," Horn said. "But you can't win a vote in New Hampshire without coming here and meeting the voter. We would very much like to see Mr. Gingrich in New Hampshire."
Gingrich campaign officials said they're aware of the rumblings. They emphatically say that the Georgia Republican is a serious candidate who's about to be seen and heard from more in coming weeks in early-vote states.
"You'll see our travel to the first five (caucus and primary) states ramp up as we get closer and closer to Christmas," said R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich campaign spokesman. "Our goal is to be up and running by Christmas and ready for Iowa and New Hampshire."
He'll have a lot of work to do. Gingrich placed fifth in this week's McClatchy/Marist Poll at 6 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters.
Texas Gov. Perry placed first with 30 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney second at 22 percent, Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota third at 12 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas fourth, at 7 percent, just a tick above Gingrich.
But the ramping up of Gingrich's ground campaign is underway. He campaigned in Iowa this week for the first time in more than a month, and his campaign announced plans to open a storefront office there next month to attract volunteers.
Gingrich told a small crowd in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Monday that he'll unveil a 2011 version of his "Contract with America" next week in Des Moines. The original contract was a manifesto that helped Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years in the minority.
It "will be 10 times deeper and more comprehensive than 1994," Gingrich told an audience of about 40 people, according to the Des Moines Register. "Because the truth is while we changed the system some ... we didn't fundamentally change the underlying system."
Gingrich also plans to campaign in South Carolina in early October. Hammond said the Gingrich camp has been manning South Carolina operations out of its Georgia office.
Campaign officials said they were buoyed about prospects in the Palmetto State after Allen Olson, chairman of the Columbia Tea Party, resigned his post, endorsed Gingrich, and said he intends to help the campaign's grassroots efforts in the state.
Hammond said Gingrich's slow campaign rollout isn't because of a lack of desire. It's because of a lack of money.
Before he entered the race, many political experts viewed Gingrich as a formidable candidate who possessed a potentially potent combination of brains and fundraising ability. Gingrich helped raise tens of millions of dollars as chairman of GOPAC, a Republican candidate-training and political action committee, and for the now-defunct American Solutions, a nonprofit political organization he established.
Money for his White House run slowed to a trickle in May after he criticized a plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to revamp Medicare.
The resignation of Gingrich's campaign manager and a half-dozen top staffers in June didn't help his fundraising, either. Neither did his decision to take a two-week Mediterranean cruise shortly after entering the race. Nor did media stories about his lavish spending with a no-interest credit account he had at Tiffany & Co.
As of June 30, Gingrich's campaign had raised $2,094,866, spent $1,772,644, had $1,030,628 worth of debt, and only $322,222 in cash on hand, according to opensecrets.org, a Center for Responsive Politics website that tracks campaign fundraising based on Federal Election Commission filings.
Hammond said that Gingrich's debate performances have generated more contributions, which is enabling the campaign to do things it couldn't afford to do before on the ground in important states.
Gingrich's campaign hopes to use elements from Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign as a roadmap for their candidate. After bleeding millions of dollars that didn't translate to success in primary polls, McCain shed consultants, campaign staff and private jet travel.
He returned to his "Straight Talk Express" bus routes from 2000, hunkered down in New Hampshire, and rescued his flagging campaign by defeating Romney in his New England backyard.
Gingrich's team hopes history can repeat itself. They're operating on the assumption that there'll be no clear Republican front-runner after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries are done by the end of February.
"We're definitely taking some things McCain did well in his comeback," Hammond said. "We're not consultant-heavy anymore. We have a team around Newt that works well with Newt and lets him be the leader that he is."
Republican operatives in the first three states stress that for Gingrich to become the 2012 GOP "Comeback Kid" he must adopt the main element of McCain's strategy: put in the hours, campaign hard, and personally meet as many voters as possible.
"He could go toe to toe in Iowa if he'd put in the time," said Craig Robinson, a Republican activist and founder of the Iowa Republican, a GOP website. "We're willing to give candidates a second look. If he camps out here, goes town to town, county to county ... he'd be rewarded for it."
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