Gingrich's shaky infrastructure shows cracks

DES MOINES, IA - OCTOBER 22: Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich greets guests at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Presidential Forum on October 22, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. Candidates Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum are scheduled to speak at the event, all hoping to gain support of the roughly 1000 in attendance in front of the January 3, 2012 Iowa caucus.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Along his path to the top of the 2012 Republican pack, Newt Gingrich has, rather proudly, declined the advice of just about everyone who tried to tell him how he should run his campaign.

Whether spending more time in TV studios and at book signings than in the early-voting states or helming a bare-bones operation in which he himself made the key strategic decisions, Gingrich has operated on the belief that the long-held tenets of waging a successful presidential campaign no longer apply.

But as the race approaches a new stage, in which poll numbers must be translated into actual voters, Gingrich's makeshift campaign operation is showing signs of vulnerability.

While his aides almost universally express confidence that they have the infrastructure in place to harness the grass-roots support that has propelled Gingrich to this point, several of them admit privately that they are in fact trying to keep the ship afloat amid a hurricane of tasks that must be completed within a precariously short timeframe.

A visit to Gingrich's Iowa campaign headquarters early last week revealed a largely empty room staffed by just a handful of people, all hurrying to complete essential tasks in a building that had opened for business less than two weeks earlier.

On Thursday, Craig Bergman -- a veteran of the Alan Keyes and Ron Paul campaigns in 2008 -- emailed RCP to announce that he had been hired as Gingrich's Iowa political director.

"Gingrich now has a serious ground game," Bergman wrote, noting that he was one of several self-appointed volunteers for Sarah Palin who had signed on with the former House speaker.

Over the summer, Bergman was part of the volunteer group in Iowa that organized in advance of a potential Palin presidential campaign, which the Alaska governor ultimately decided against launching. In that role, Bergman was at the center of a heated dispute with members of Palin's staff and several other Iowa volunteers, and he left the group shortly after Labor Day.

Less than a week after joining the Gingrich team, however, Bergman was forced out after his controversial comments to a focus group -- made the day before he was hired -- came to light. Speaking in reference to Mitt Romney, Bergman had said, "A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon."

Despite such hitches, Gingrich's Iowa team was able to draw a packed house to its headquarters on Saturday when the candidate delivered brief remarks and signed books there, and Gingrich attracted sizable crowds during campaign events in the state on Wednesday.

Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, who has stuck by Gingrich since endorsing him last February, argued that there was some benefit to relying so heavily on enthusiasm at the expense of infrastructure, despite the deeply held Iowa tenet that a solid organization is required to turn out supporters on a cold January night.

"When you've got energy and momentum like you've got right now, you move a whole lot faster," Upmeyer said over the weekend. "If you look at some of the campaigns that maybe had a lot of organization, they don't have much momentum and energy left. Momentum is important."

With the final debate before the Jan. 3 caucuses slated for Thursday night in Sioux City, the rest of the Republican field is almost certain to use the forum to take shots at Gingrich in front of a large audience.

Meanwhile, a pro-Romney super PAC -- Restore Our Future -- is in the midst of a massive Iowa TV advertising blitz that warns Republican caucus-goers of Gingrich's "baggage."

The anti-Gingrich ad has been airing frequently in the Des Moines media market and appears to be having some effect -- in conjunction with additional negative ads being aired by Ron Paul's campaign -- as Gingrich's support has declined somewhat, according to recent polls.

Though his campaign has no official control over outside groups acting on his behalf, Gingrich is also playing catch-up in the all-important realm of super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from wealthy donors.

On Tuesday, a pro-Gingrich super PAC called Winning Our Future announced its formation. Another supportive super PAC, Solutions 2012, has been operating since last month but has not yet aired any TV ads.

Winning Our Future, which is being helmed by longtime Gingrich fundraiser Becky Burkett, appears to be the outside group that enjoys the unofficial blessing of Gingrich's inner circle.

Burkett told RCP that she has spoken recently with former Gingrich spokesperson Rick Tyler, and a second source close to Gingrich confirms that Tyler is moving toward joining the super PAC.

After Thursday night's debate, Gingrich will take a two-day swing through Iowa next week but will not return to the state until Dec. 27, when he plans to spend the final week before the caucuses on a statewide bus tour.

Gingrich's decision not to spend more time in the Hawkeye State over the next two weeks is all the more risky considering his lack of an established turnout operation there.

But the insurgent candidate, who has already risen once from the politically dead, appears to be counting on the premise that what has worked for him so far will continue to pay dividends.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.