WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich looked to turn an endorsement from New Hampshire's largest newspaper into momentum elsewhere, heading to South Carolina for a three-day campaign swing with tea party members.
His leading rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, did not schedule campaign appearances on Monday, but his advisers were working to downplay The New Hampshire Union Leader's backing of Gingrich in Romney's back yard. The newspaper's rejection of Romney, who enjoys solid polling leads in that state and has worked to line up activists, stood to potentially reshape the entire campaign.
"We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job," the newspaper said in its Sunday front-page editorial.
The Union Leader's editorial is a sign that conservative concerns about Romney's shifts on crucial issues of abortion and gay rights were unlikely to fade. Those worries have led Romney to keep Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses — where conservatives hold great sway — at arm's length.
At the same time, the endorsement boosts Gingrich's conservative credentials. He spent the week defending his immigration policies against accusations they represent a form of amnesty. On Monday, Gingrich was to begin a campaign swing through South Carolina, the South's first primary state. There, he will have a town hall meeting with Rep. Tim Scott and tea party activists in Charleston.
Romney, taking a few days' break for the Thanksgiving holiday, has kept focused on a long-term strategy that doesn't lurch from one development to another. Last week, he picked up the backing of Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota conservative, to add to his roster of supporters.
Romney planned to return to the campaign on Tuesday in Florida.
The Union Leader's rejection of Romney wasn't surprising despite his efforts to woo state leaders. The newspaper rejected Romney four years ago in favor of Arizona Sen. John McCain, using front-page columns and editorials to promote McCain and criticize Romney.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has a vacation home in the state and has been called a "nearly native son of New Hampshire," absorbed the blow heading into the Jan. 10 vote that's vital to his campaign strategy.
Yet with six weeks until the primary, The Union Leader's move could again shuffle the race, further boosting Gingrich and driving a steady stream of criticism against his rivals. In recent weeks, the former House speaker has seen a surge in some polls as Republicans focus more closely on deciding who they consider best positioned to take on President Barack Obama.