WASHINGTON — New Hampshire's largest newspaper on Sunday endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 2012 GOP presidential race, signaling that rival Mitt Romney isn't the universal favorite and potentially resetting the contest before the state's lead-off primary Jan. 10.
"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing," The New Hampshire Union Leader said in its front-page editorial, which was as much a promotion of Gingrich as a discreet rebuke of Romney.
"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 editorial said.
Romney enjoys solid leads in New Hampshire polls and remains at the front of the pack nationally. A poll released last week showed him with 42 percent support among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. Gingrich followed with 15 percent in the WMUR-University of New Hampshire Granite State poll.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas posted 12 percent support and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman found 8 percent support in that survey.
Those numbers could shift based on the backing of The Union Leader, a newspaper with a conservative editorial stance that proudly works to influence elections, from school boards to the White House, in the politically savvy state.
The endorsement, signed by publisher Joseph W. McQuaid, suggested that the only state-wide newspaper in New Hampshire was ready to again assert itself as a player in the GOP primary.
"We don't have to agree with them on every issue," the newspaper wrote in an editorial that ran across the width of the front page. "We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."
While Romney enjoys solid support in national polls, the large pack of Republicans has shifted all year from candidate to candidate in search of an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. That led to the rise, and fall, of potential challengers such as Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Yet with six weeks until the primary, The Union Leader's move could shuffle the race and further boost Gingrich. In recent weeks, he has seen a surge in some polls as Republicans focus more closely on deciding which candidate they consider best positioned to take on President Barack Obama.
But a Gingrich rival, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said the endorsement points to how changeable the New Hampshire contest is.
"A month ago for Newt Gingrich to have been in the running to capture the Manchester Union Leader endorsement would have been unthinkable," Huntsman told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "I think it reflects, more than anything else, the fluidity, the unpredictability of the race right now."
As voters started focusing more on the race, Gingrich has turned in solid debate performances and found his stride on a national stage. He has rebuilt his campaign after a disastrous summer that saw many of his top aides resign en masse and fundraising summaries report million in debt.
In New Hampshire, he brought on respected tea party leader Andrew Hemingway to lead his efforts and his team has been contacting almost 1,000 voters each day.
Hemingway's team of eight paid staffers in New Hampshire has been adding more than 100 volunteers each day, campaign officials said. Gingrich's team has lined up leaders in the major cities and has started identifying representatives in each ward in the state.
Gingrich has opened offices in Manchester, New Hampshire's biggest city, along with Dover in the eastern part of the state and in the North Country's Littleton. He plans two more.
Gingrich hasn't begun television advertising and has refused to go negative on his opponents.
Yet The Union Leader's backing could give him a nudge in New Hampshire and provide a steady stream of criticism.
Four years earlier, the newspaper threw its support to Arizona Sen. John McCain's bid and used front page opinion columns and editorials to boost him and criticize chief rival Romney. In the time since, Romney has worked to court Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid, who often runs columns on the newspaper's front page under his signature.
"The Union Leader's style is we don't just endorse once," McQuaid told The Washington Post in 1999. "We endorse every damn day. We started endorsing Reagan in 1975 and never stopped."
Romney and his wife, Ann, had dinner with the McQuaids at the Bedford Village Inn near Manchester, hoping to reset the relationship earlier this year. Yet it didn't prove enough and McQuaid's newspaper seemed not to appreciate the outreach.
"Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate," McQuaid wrote. "But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running."