Romney’s rivals don’t have time on their side

Five Republicans are fighting mightily to deny Mitt Romney a quick coronation as the party’s presidential nominee. But if one of them emerges as his top challenger, a monumental task lies ahead: building a national campaign operation on the fly.

For Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or any other successful insurgent, the state-by-state scramble for delegates would require quick hiring of staffers scattered across the country -- first and foremost in Florida, where Romney could essentially lock up the nomination in the Jan. 31 primary.

Offices must be rented, cellphones purchased. Endorsements must be lined up and scores of surrogates deployed. A deluge of media inquiries will gush in not just from the national media, but also from far-flung local news outlets, many of them in strategically vital regions that cannot be ignored.

Simultaneous challenges abound: new TV ads to be produced and tested with focus groups, polls to be taken, brochures to be printed, and databases to be culled to target voters susceptible to persuasion through phone calls and mail.


Seasoned advance staff must navigate the candidate through multiple events a day in diverse and unfamiliar towns. Trivial missteps can escalate instantly into YouTube nightmares.

Not least, operatives steeped in arcane state election rules must run petition drives to get the candidate’s name on ballots for primaries weeks or months away, a chore neglected early on -- to their detriment -- by Santorum, Gingrich and Rick Perry.

All the while, any Republican who manages to become Romney’s chief opponent will have to keep raising money at a breakneck pace and maintain a vigorous schedule of events -- and compete against a front-runner whose national infrastructure is set firmly in place.

“It’s very difficult to put the wings on while the plane is flying,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s campaign in 2008. “It becomes a very, very complicated operation -- very, very quickly.”

To varying degrees, Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman Jr. are well behind Romney in building support structures robust enough to sustain the sort of prolonged battle that entangled Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.

Besides his financial edge, Romney has spent the last four years methodically expanding the organization that he built for the 2008 race that he lost to McCain.

With electability a top concern for many Republican primary voters, the former Massachusetts governor has turned the reach of his state operations into a selling point, particularly in Florida and other swing states.

“The time and effort that we have invested in building these organizations will help when Gov. Romney becomes the nominee and needs to compete against President Obama’s formidable political machine,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.

For now, the would-be insurgents are focused on achieving a breakthrough in South Carolina’s relatively cheap and small-scale primary next Saturday.

But the first big test of staying power will be the Florida contest 10 days later. There, Romney has been exploiting his superior fundraising position for weeks. He has opened offices in Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami, plus a state headquarters in Tampa. He has mailed thousands of brochures to absentee voters and has rolled out a roster of big-name supporters, including Miami Cuban American leaders Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Most important, Romney has been the lone candidate airing television ads across most of Florida, a vast state where TV advertising is an essential but costly way to communicate with voters.

“Florida is a money game,” said Mike DuHaime, who ran Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign in 2008. Giuliani quit the race after finishing a distant third in Florida. A good way to look at Florida, DuHaime said, is as a trial run for the large-scale operational rigors of a general election race.

“You’re building a very large business from scratch,” he said.

Also easing Romney’s way in Florida is Restore Our Future, a “super PAC” led by former advisors. It has reported spending more than $2.6 million on TV ads attacking Gingrich. The former House speaker has lacked the wherewithal to respond in kind, and a super PAC that backs him has stayed focused, so far, on South Carolina.

Gingrich has started establishing a presence in Florida more recently. He campaigned Friday in Orlando and Miami’s Little Havana. He has recruited a former House colleague, Bill McCollum, as co-chairman of his Florida campaign.

Perry, whose campaign was flush with cash in the fall, assigned staff to Florida months ago. In automatic robocalls to absentee voters, the Texas governor has talked up his conservative credentials on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control. But dismal poll ratings suggest Perry could have trouble surviving without a strong showing in South Carolina.

Paul, who won just 3% of the Florida vote in 2008, plans to spend little money there this time. That could prove a wise move, given Florida’s winner-takes-all system for awarding delegates and his single-digit poll ratings.

But the Texas congressman has opened offices in a dozen other states, among them Missouri, Nevada and Minnesota, Paul spokesman Gary Howard said. “We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.

For Santorum, Florida is a steep climb. His state chairman recently fretted in an email, published in a Miami Herald blog, that Santorum’s 110-plus volunteers were “grouped together in the more populated areas and most of them aren’t interested in leading.”

But national evangelical leaders on Saturday endorsed Santorum, and if the endorsement comes with substantial cooperation, the former Pennsylvania senator could transform their volunteer networks into a “campaign juggernaut,” at least short-term, said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina GOP strategist who is nonaligned in the race.

“That would give him time to build what he needs to build,” Felkel said. “The problem is, sooner or later, the gas runs out of this thing.”

For any possible insurgent, the scope of work that lies beyond South Carolina is “massive,” said Fred Davis, who made campaign ads for McCain and now works for an independent group airing TV spots for Huntsman. The later a campaign sprouts into a serious national operation, he said, the more it will cost.

“Anything that’s done in a super-rush hurry,” he said, “is done drastically inefficiently.”