By Josh Lederman - 11/27/11 07:10 PM EST
Newt Gingrich locked up the support of New Hampshire’s most influential newspaper, giving his fledgling campaign a new jolt of legitimacy as the former House Speaker works to establish himself as the only viable alternative to Mitt Romney.
The editorial board endorsement by the New Hampshire Union Leader on Sunday was also a blow to Romney ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10, where the former neighbor-state governor is relying on a wide-margin win to propel him through other early-state contests.
“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate,” wrote Joseph W. McQuaid, the paper’s publisher. “But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running. In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich.”
But it could help him narrow the gap — and to change the conversation away from immigration, where Gingrich has been fending off critics alleging he favors widespread amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The paper’s closely watched endorsement will also make it easier for Gingrich hold on to his position at the front of the GOP pack nationally. Now besting Romney by a few points in most national polls of Republican voters, Gingrich is directly hoping to break the pattern established by the GOP hopefuls to surge before him, whose triumph collapsed almost as quickly as it was achieved, leaving Romney once again in the top slot.
“Romney is a very play-it-safe candidate. He doesn't want to offend everybody, or anybody. He wants to be liked,” the newspaper’s editorial page editor, Drew Cline, said Sunday on CNN. “Imagine what that would be like as president —somebody who plays it very safe.”
Romney's campaign though kept its gaze focused squarely on Obama, mentioning neither the endorsement nor Gingrich's newfound success in the polls in a release to reporters on Sunday denigrating Obama's record on job creation.
The endorsement by Cline and his Union Leader colleagues was also a major blow to Jon Huntsman, who has placed all his eggs in New Hampshire’s basket, and who has aimed to siphon of votes from Romney by positioning himself as another moderate with much less political baggage.
But the Union Leader has been critical of Huntsman in the past, and observers expected the newspaper to side with either Romney or Gingrich.
Huntsman worked Sunday to downplay the significance of the endorsement, brushing it off as yet another sign that voters hadn’t made up their minds and weren’t locked in behind Romney.
“It once again proves how unpredictable and fluid New Hampshire is,” Huntsman said on Fox News.
“It is not going to be enough to merely replace Barack Obama next year,” McQuaid wrote in announcing the endorsement. “We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing.”
The paper backed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and John McCain in 2008, choosing the senator from Arizona over Romney, who also ran four years ago. But it also twice backed Pat Buchanan, a controversial figure who was defeated in all three of his presidential campaigns. In 2000, the paper backed businessman Steve Forbes.
The newspaper’s backing will also be another feather in Gingrich’s policy hat as he works to shore up the narrative that he’s the only candidate in the race with the intellectual might and thoroughly considered proposals to handle the White House at such a difficult, watershed moment in history.
Gingrich has racked up only six endorsements from members of Congress, according to an analysis by The Hill, falling far short of Rick Perry’s 13 and Romney’s 44 congressional endorsements.
This story was updated at 4:15 p.m.
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