- Gingrich grabbed endorsement from state's largest, most conservative paper
- But the Union Leader hasn't had a great track record picking nominees
- Romney, Huntsman now have tougher battle in state where they have campaigned heavily
The timing couldn't have been better for Newt Gingrich.
He's under fire from some of his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination and from some top conservative voices for suggesting at the CNN Republican debate last week that there should be a "path to legality" for some illegal immigrants. But the former House speaker got a shot in the arm in the form of the New Hampshire Union Leader's endorsement.
The newspaper's support is akin to a conservative stamp of approval: The Union Leader is the only statewide newspaper in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation primary, and its editorial page is influential among Granite State conservatives.
The endorsement, which labeled Gingrich as the "best candidate who is actually running," could also make him a player in a state where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has home-field advantage.
Romney is the overwhelming front-runner in polls of likely New Hampshire primary voters, thanks in part to name recognition. Romney was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and much of southern New Hampshire is in the Boston media market. Romney also owns a vacation home in the Granite State and spent a lot of time campaigning there in the last presidential cycle, as well as making very public stops the past two years to help local New Hampshire Republicans.
But Gingrich has seen his Granite State poll numbers rise lately, and he now places second in the three most recent surveys released last week. The Union Leader's endorsement could make him the conservative alternative to Romney.
However, the paper's track record is not the best indicator of which candidate will win the nomination. Though it got it right in 1980, endorsing Ronald Reagan, the candidates it supported in 1988 (Pete DuPont), 1992 and 1996 (Pat Buchanan) and 2000 (Steve Forbes) did not end up winning the nomination.
The newspaper's endorsement four years ago of Sen. John McCain did help restart his campaign, which was nearly left for dead a few months earlier.
The Gingrich endorsement is likely to be more than a one-day story. The crucial question now is how aggressive the Union Leader will be, in the six weeks until the New Hampshire primary, in supporting Gingrich while attacking Romney and the other Republican White House hopefuls campaigning in the state.
Four years ago, after endorsing McCain, the newspaper repeatedly criticized Romney.
Could we see the same strategy this time around? Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid tells Politico that his paper will most likely follow its usual formula, which we saw in the last cycle.
"I've run campaigns in New Hampshire with the Union Leader with me and against me. I'd rather have them with me," says Granite state based GOP strategist Patrick Griffin.
Besides Romney, the other candidate who could be hurt by the endorsement may be Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China is concentrating most of his time and resources campaigning in New Hampshire.
"Now, with the Union Leader endorsement, Gingrich cuts in front of Huntsman's wind in New Hampshire," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor who was a top media adviser to Romney's 2008 campaign but who is not taking sides in this cycle.
With only five weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Castellanos says, Gingrich may end up being the Romney alternative in Iowa, and "that could catapult him into a mano-a-mano death match with Romney in the Granite State."
But Gingrich has plenty of baggage: from his past stances on illegal immigration and a health care individual mandate to his teaming up on a couch with Nancy Pelosi in a long-ago TV commercial to his three marriages.
Castellanos, who was also a top media adviser to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, says that with Gingrich, "every day is an adventure, like roller-skating across a tightrope. He always has the potential to take himself down as quickly as he has gone up. No one can do more damage to Gingrich than Gingrich. He needs to hire a bodyguard to protect himself from himself. As he becomes more relevant, so will his flaws."