WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New Hampshire’s largest newspaper endorsed Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential race on Sunday, giving the former House speaker a boost in a state where Mitt Romney has been expected to excel.
The endorsement validates Gingrich’s recent rise as a candidate — months after many political pundits thought his campaign was as good as over following a series of missteps — and is a blow to Romney’s aspirations.
“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate,” the New Hampshire Union Leader said in an editorial. “But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running.”
The conservative-leaning newspaper, the only state-wide daily, is influential in New Hampshire, where the January 10 Republican primary is seen as crucial for candidates hoping to build campaign momentum.
The newspaper said Gingrich “has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times” and praised his “innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership.”
“A lot of candidates say they’re going to improve Washington. Newt Gingrich has actually done that, and in this race he offers the best shot of doing it again,” it said.
This month Gingrich surged to the front of the national Republican field. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed him with 24 percent support, compared to Romney’s 22 percent.
But Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who owns a large vacation home in New Hampshire, has mostly been floating far above his challengers and has campaigned actively in the state.
Romney still has big leads in most polls of New Hampshire voters with average support of 36.8 percent to Gingrich’s 18.5 percent, according to the www.realclearpolitics.com website.
Still, some surveys suggest that Romney’s support has been driven more by name recognition — as Massachusetts governor he was seen frequently on television in populous southern New Hampshire — than by true passion among voters.
A survey by The Polling Company Inc showed Romney with 35 percent support from 500 likely voters, ahead of Gingrich at 18 percent. But only 20 percent said they “definitely” planned to vote for Romney.
In the past week Romney has scored endorsements from two-thirds of New Hampshire’s Republican congressional delegation: first-term U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte and Representative Charles Bass.
In the Union Leader editorial, publisher Joseph McQuaid did not mention Romney by name but said the newspaper’s readers “know that we don’t back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers.”
The newspaper also bypassed Romney during the 2008 Republican primary. It endorsed Senator John McCain, who went on to win his party’s nomination but lose to Barack Obama in the general election.
Romney’s campaign did not immediately respond to calls for comment but another Republican candidate, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman said on the “Fox News Sunday” program that the endorsement “once again proves how fluid and unpredictable New Hampshire is.”
Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Bill Trott