By Alexander Bolton - 12/13/11 10:00 AM EST
It could be a lonely march to the nomination for Newt Gingrich, the GOP presidential hopeful who is having trouble getting the members of his party establishment to back him.
Even in his home state of Georgia, Gingrich is having problems gathering support from party officials, despite the commanding lead in the polls he has built over his closest rival, Mitt Romney. The withdrawal of Herman Cain, Georgia’s other native, hasn’t helped much, either.
Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R) and Johnny Isakson (R) have ruled out endorsing Gingrich or any other candidate in the primary.
On the House side, Gingrich has picked up endorsements from five Republican members of the Georgia delegation, but three lawmakers have declined to join his camp.
Freshman Reps. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) and Tom Graves (R-Ga.) have stayed neutral, as has Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.).
“It’s surprising, but it’s consistent with what has happened among a number of the Speaker’s former colleagues in the House,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who earned his reputation as a pollster for former Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell (R). “Those who know him best are not his strongest supporters.”
An Insider Advantage poll made public last week showed Gingrich leading Romney in Georgia by a margin of 54 percent to 12.
Last week, former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who served with Gingrich six years in the House, blasted him as someone who is “not a reliable and trusted conservative leader.”
Talent told reporters on a conference call organized by the Romney campaign that while Gingrich says “insightful things,” he “also says outrageous things that come from nowhere.”
“He has a tendency to say them at exactly the time when they most undermine the conservative agenda,” Talent added.
David Simons, a Republican consultant in Georgia, said Chambliss and Isakson are likely worried about the negative impressions that follow Gingrich.
“The senators are trying to appease the whole state. If Newt was less of a lightning rod, they’d be more inclined to get on board,” Simons said. “Because Newt has a lot of negatives, they don’t want to attract that to themselves.
“Yes, we get it that he’s a Georgian, but he brings a lot of negatives that a lot of people are trying to overcome,” Simons said, explaining lingering ambivalence over Gingrich in Georgia. “He’s not people’s first choice.”
Chambliss said he likes Gingrich but has simply decided to stay neutral.
“Newt is my friend,” Chambliss said. “I’ve made a decision not to endorse anyone. I’m very happy for him. I see him regularly. He’s in and out of Georgia at political events, but I’m not going to endorse anyone.”
Isakson said the primary has been so topsy-turvy that he prefers to watch from the sidelines.
“I’m not going to get into the endorsing business,” he said. “I had two Georgians in the race for a while. One of them is out. You had people going up and down. I’ve tried to do everything to welcome them to my state.”
Isakson emphasized that his stance is “not a criticism of anyone” and became a little irritated when pressed on whether he might change his mind now that Cain has dropped out.
Gingrich’s allies on Capitol Hill say he wants to hold more meetings with potential backers and hopes to unveil more congressional endorsements in the near future.
A GOP strategist speaking anonymously told The Washington Post last week that Gingrich planned to roll out endorsements from lawmakers to rebut claims that he was a poor leader in the House.
As of Monday afternoon, Romney had 56 congressional endorsements, including the seal of approval from nine senators. Gingrich has only eight endorsements, and not one from a senator.
Gingrich held an event last week with Republican lawmakers supporting his campaign. Reps. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Michael Burgess (Texas), two allies, were among those who attended.
Gingrey told The Hill that he is eager to help Gingrich win more support in Congress but questioned whether congressional endorsements would make much of a difference in the race. He noted that Romney led McCain in endorsements during the early part of the 2008 race.
Burgess recalled an attempt to introduce Gingrich to more House Republicans over the summer that didn’t go as planned. A vote was called at the same time as the meet-and-greet and barely any lawmakers showed up.
“We put something together at the end of the summer but his stature in the race was not then what it is now. There was a vote called and everyone was over here voting,” Burgess said. “We acknowledged that we needed to do something else to get him more exposure.”
Burgess said that Gingrich has visited Capitol Hill frequently to speak to Republican lawmakers in recent years, including once at a healthcare caucus Burgess hosted in March and to a meeting of the Republican freshman class.
Burgess said Gingrich has kept in much closer touch with House Republicans than Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was one of the few national leaders who met with House Republicans to help them plot a comeback strategy after the 2008 election.
“When we were at our lowest ebb, when we lost 30 seats one election and 20 more for good measure the cycle after that, everyone counted us out,” Burgess said. “It was Newt Gingrich who would come to the conference and talk to us and articulate a vision for how we would come back.”
Burgess said Gingrich would talk to lawmakers about “the cheerful persistence” they need to get back in the majority.
“I didn’t hear from Rick Perry then, I didn’t hear from Mitt Romney,” he said.
Gingrich garnered the endorsement of one famous Georgian this week. John Rocker, a former star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and native of Statesboro, touted his candidacy during a radio interview with sports commentator Mike Silva.
Rocker, like Gingrich, has taken fire in the past for making controversial statements, such as when he said he would never play for the New York Mets because there are too many foreigners in the city.