Big staff pick-up for Gingrich in Florida

Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich takes part in the Republican debate, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. Attacked as a lifelong Washington insider, newly minted Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich parried criticism from Mitt Romney in campaign debate Saturday night, telling the former Massachusetts governor, "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich takes part in the Republican debate, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Big get for surging Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in Florida: His new state director is Jose Mallea, who helped steer Marco Rubio's come-from-behind victory in the 2010 Senate race.

The Miami-based campaign strategist has longstanding ties to powerful Republicans in the state, which will hold one of the nation's earliest primaries on Jan. 31.

Mallea's move is likely to fuel speculation that Rubio will endorse Gingrich, though the freshman senator has said he would stay neutral in the primary. Gingrich and other candidates have dropped his name as a likely running mate.

Rubio had an autographed picture of Gingrich on his desk when he served in the Florida Legislature and brought it with him to Washington, Mallea said.

"For those of us who came up in politics in the mid 1990s, he's someone we admired," Mallea said. "He's so intelligent on the issues and understands where we need to go as a country."

Gingrich has been scrambling in recent days to build a campaign infrastructure to capitalize on his recent surge in the polls. The latest surveys show him with a double-digit lead in Florida over the longtime frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

Romney has been organizing in Florida since he first started running for president in 2007. Losing a big, battleground state like Florida could devastate Romney's bid for the White House.

Mallea's ties to Florida's influential Cuban-American were surely not lost on Gingrich, who has been one of the most aggressive candidates in courting Hispanic voters. One year ago, the former House Speaker sponsored a major forum in Washington with Hispanic leaders from around the country. And back in August, two months after most of his staff quit and his campaign was running on a shoestring, Gingrich brought the head of his bilingual web site, the Americano, onto the campaign.

Gingrich's media consultant is Lionel Sosa, who heads a Texas-based, Hispanic advertising agency and has worked for John McCain and George W. Bush.

Mallea worked as the special assistant to former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and at other posts in the Bush administration. He served as former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's chief of staff and has worked on statewide campaigns in Florida since 1996.

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.