Union Leader endorsement ‘legitimizes’ Gingrich as the ‘anti-Romney’, but doesn’t clinch state, say GOP strategists

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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While Republican strategists say that the New Hampshire Union Leader’s endorsement Sunday of Newt Gingrich goes a long way to projecting the former House Speaker as the preeminent “anti-Romney” candidate in the GOP primary field, some strategists suggest that it won’t give him enough of a boost to overcome former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s formidable lead in the polls.

“It legitimizes Gingrich’s status as the conservative alternative to Romney in a way no other candidate has been able to yet,” Republican political consultant Jim Dyke told TheDC.

“It is a blow to everyone trying to be the anti-Romney,” echoed Dan Hazelwood, a Republican consultant.

“It adds another layer of legitimacy to his rise,” emailed Republican consultant Reed Galen.

The Union Leader is a conservative bastion and New Hampshire’s only statewide paper. It was one of the first outlets to throw its weight behind Ronald Reagan, all the way back in 1975 when Reagan primary-challenged President Gerald Ford. Its endorsement gives Gingrich a boost in the first in the nation primary state, but it also has salience outside of the state, Dyke said.

“It affects perception broadly until something trumps it,” he argued.

“It will also help fundraising and further push the lower tier candidates to the sidelines,” said Galen.

But even as the Gingrich campaign trumpeted the significance of the endorsement by blasting out an email Sunday announcing the endorsement had “solidified his hold as the conservative front runner in the 2012 presidential race,” GOP consultants caution that it doesn’t mean Gingrich is destined to win the state.

“It will give him a boost, help with fundraising, maybe help conservative support coalesce behind him, but it probably doesn’t mean much in terms of actual votes,” said one New Hampshire Republican strategist.

Coveted as the endorsement may be, the Union Leader doesn’t have a perfect track record of ushering its chosen candidate to victory on primary day. In the 2000 presidential race, the Union Leader endorsed Steve Forbes, who went on to lose to George W. Bush, whom the Union Leader called an “empty suit,” Politico’s Mike Allen pointed out in his morning Playbook email. The paper’s endorsement of Reagan didn’t propel the Gipper to victory in the state either in 1976. In 2010, the paper’s endorsement of Republican Senate nominee Ovide Lamontagne didn’t help him achieve victory in the primary over Kelly Ayotte, who went on to win the general election.

In 2008 the Union Leader endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary and McCain went on to win the primary and the GOP nomination.

Romney currently leads Gingrich by more than 18 percentage points in New Hampshire, according the Real Clear Politics polling average.

“Romney is too well established to dislodge him in New Hampshire with the endorsement,” opined Republican strategist Paul Wilson.

“What it does say,” he added, “is that Newt is fully redeemed.”

The power of the Union Leader endorsement is that it is not merely a one-time flash-in-the-pan, explained Hazelwood.

“The Union Leader will now repeatedly editorialize to support Gingrich so it is not a one shot deal,” he said.

“The question is can Gingrich build on the Union Leader [endorsement] to consolidate and hold a position as the other candidate beside Romney,” Hazelwood added. “If he does get another domino to fall his way in the next 10 days then he will be the real McCoy until Iowa actually votes.”

Also significant, according to Republican political consultant Mike Dennehy, is the that the Union Leader will not just promote Gingrich, but will actively and routinely attack his opponents.

“What many people don’t know is that the Union Leader’s power is at least equal in their ability to bring a candidate down as in their power to build a candidate up,” explained Dennehy in an email. “In 2008, they endorsed McCain when he needed it most and they criticized Mitt Romney every week, which dramatically increased Romney’s unfavorable image leading up to election day. It is unclear what the Union Leader will do with Romney this year, but supporting Newt gives him tremendous credibility when HE needs it most and adds to Newt’s momentum nationally and in New Hampshire.”

Dennehy called “the Union Leader editorial page … the single, most coveted, endorsement by a Republican presidential candidate, and any candidate who says they disagree is lying.”

The Union Leader’s endorsement likely comes as a blow to Romney. Sources tell TheDC that he had worked harder than any other candidate in pursuit of the endorsement and, had he received it, it would have gone a long way to clinching the New Hampshire primary for him.

The decision to endorse Gingrich almost seems like a direct snub to Romney by the paper. In the editorial, Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid writes, “We don’t have to agree with them on every issue. We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.” The line appears to be an allusion to Romney’s reputation as a flip flopper. Sources say that they believe McQuaid has something of a problem with Romney and his perceived willingness to say anything to get elected.

Regardless of whether the endorsement allows Gingrich to take on Romney, Galen emailed, “it makes Romney take another look at his Iowa strategy. He’s been running in NH for years and years. I’m not sure the UL endorsement details him but he has to make sure he gets the win there and not divide his resources on what would be a tough win in Iowa.”

The Romney campaign did not respond to request for comment on the endorsement.