JEFFERSON, Iowa (Reuters) - The new man of the moment in the Republican presidential race tears down Iowa’s two-lane highways in a rental car driven by his campaign director, with just two other staffers - a 20-something assistant and a press secretary - along for the ride.
The tiny retinue is symptomatic.
With Texas Governor Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain having wilted after major gaffes, Newt Gingrich is soaring in the polls. The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives finds himself surprised by success, trying to catch up on staffing and fund-raising even as he fends off charges of crony capitalism.
Starting off his talk to a packed “meet and greet” in Jefferson, Iowa, the 68-year-old cracked: “That’s the first time anybody anywhere has introduced me as the leading candidate for president of the United States.”
Welcome to the irony of answered prayers.
No sooner had Gingrich’s poll numbers come up when reports emerged this week about his earnings from the financial and healthcare industries over the past decade.
On Wednesday, after Gingrich headlined an early morning fund-raiser for an Iowa state Senate candidate, word came of the Bloomberg story that he was paid up to $1.8 million in consulting fees by Freddie Mac, which he has hammered in the past as a leading cause of the financial crisis.
Gingrich’s first response - that he worked as a “historian” for the troubled mortgage giant - was widely dismissed.
Two days later, The Washington Post reported Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit think tank, had taken in some $37 million over the past eight years from major healthcare companies and industry groups.
USA Today reported on Thursday that Gingrich had written and spoken extensively on healthcare issues without disclosing his business ties to the industry.
Gingrich’s campaign has responded he did not lobby for his clients and they sought him out for his ideas as a 20-year veteran of Congress.
The latest news may hurt him with some voters, and it’s not the only problem facing the Gingrich campaign.
The new Republican front-runner has only a fraction of the people he needs to deal with the mounting demands and attention - his 30 staffers across the country are well below the 120 or so many campaign strategists say is the minimum a team with national aspirations.
President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has more than 200 people working at its headquarters in Chicago alone.
As of this week, Gingrich had no paid staff in Iowa, a state whose bellwether January 3 caucuses require a small army of volunteers to bring out voters to meetings in school gyms and private homes across 1,700 precincts on a cold winter night.
“They’re the ones who are going to stand up and advocate on your behalf on January 3. So if you don’t have anything cooking in that department, I think it’s going to be very difficult,” said Craig Robinson, former political director of the state Republican Party.
Gingrich is better off for staff in the next two primary election states, with six in New Hampshire and nine in South Carolina. Asked if the campaign could contend despite so few people, spokesman R.C. Hammond said: “Which poll do you want me to send you?”
Limited staff is sign of a bigger problem: Gingrich’s fund-raising lags far behind that of his Republican rivals.
For the first nine months of 2011, he raised just $2.8 million, less than a tenth of $32 million haul of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the most consistent front-runner in the Republican nomination race.
Gingrich’s staff says his fund-raising has picked up sharply as his poll numbers have risen, bringing in more than $3 million since the start of October.
The warchests of all of the Republican candidates look paltry beside the $156 million Obama has already raised for himself and the Democratic Party going into the November 2012 election.
The lack of organization also shows up on Gingrich’s schedule, which fits meetings with voters into a meandering program of radio call-ins, book signings and screenings of films he and his wife have made.
On one recent day in Iowa, his public calendar included a meeting with employees at an insurance company in the capital Des Moines and the “meet and greet” at a community center with members of a county Republican association.
Later that day, he and his wife Callista hosted a reception at a winery. They signed copies of their books for about an hour - Callista’s children’s book on U.S. history and Newt’s novels and many non-fiction works on subjects including history and religion.
Gingrich then gave a short version of his campaign speech and took questions on job creation and immigration before they showed their 94-minute documentary on Pope John Paul II.
Back in Washington, the storm was brewing over his consulting work. The reminder that Gingrich has spent decades as a political power player could alienate supporters who reject the big-spending Washington establishment.
“I think it’s very difficult for someone to speak as an outsider when he’s been such a part of this inside game,” said Russell Walker, national political director of FreedomWorks, an umbrella group for the Tea Party movement, which favors smaller government.
“Authenticity is important to voters, especially to Tea Partiers, who are looking for someone who not just speaks like a fiscal conservative but is a fiscal conservative.”
Editing by Claudia Parsons