By Jo Ling Kent, NBC News
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In a significant development in the Republican presidential contest, the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper endorsed former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as his campaign surges in polls both nationally and locally. Despite his tumultuous political past, Gingrich was cited by the paper to have conservative credentials they believe to be critical to win the GOP nomination.
"A lot of candidates say they're going to improve Washington," wrote publisher Joe McQuaid. "Newt Gingrich has actually done that, and in this race he offers the best shot of doing it again."
The paper called Gingrich's strategy "innovative, forward looking" and his leadership "positive." However, McQuaid was quick to conceded Gingrich is far from the ideal candidate.
"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 ... he has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in trying times."
Gingrich: 'Enormous boost'
The paper's support is considered the state's most influential media nod ahead of the first-in-the-nation Republican primary and will certainly help Gingrich's prospects here. The Union Leader is the state's largest and only state-wide daily publication. It prides itself on being independent and conservative.
"We are honored to have the endorsement of the Union Leader," Gingrich's New Hampshire state campaign director Andrew Hemingway told NBC News Sunday morning. "This is an enormous boost to our campaign and further proof the the people of N.H. are wanting substance and solutions over soundbites and pandering." Gingrich was not immediately available for comment.
The Union Leader's Gingrich endorsement comes after significant courting by Mitt Romney, who has been campaigning in the state for several years. This is the second time that the Union Leader has chosen not to endorse Romney. In 2008, it notably backed John McCain who eventually went on to win the New Hampshire primary following a major comeback from a near-dead campaign the summer and fall before the primary. The paper's editorial team also took several significant swipes at Romney in the process, undoubtedly hurting his chances in New Hampshire.
Looking back, the Union Leader has only supported two Republican candidates who went on to actually cement the GOP nomination: Reagan in 1980 and McCain in 2008. The Granite State publication endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, Pete du Pont in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Steve Forbes in 2000 and John McCain 2008.
GOP candidate Newt Gingrich was front and center in Tuesday's debate, reflecting his recent surge to the top of the polls. On immigration, Gingrich disagreed with the other candidates by calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are longtime residents and have paid taxes. NBC's Andrea Mitchell has more.
As for this election cycle, McQuaid recently told the Concord Monitor that "the future of the free world" is at stake. McQuaid said that the paper decided on its endorsement earlier this week and wrote the opinion ahead of Thanksgiving.
"I'm not kidding," McQuaid said of the upcoming 2012 contest. "I think this is a very important election in America."
In the latest New Hampshire polls, Gingrich is tied with Rep. Ron Paul for second place at 14 percent, behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who garnered 41 percent, according to Suffolk University and 7 News. In another state-wide survey by WMUR and University of New Hampshire, Gingrich has 15 percent of support, behind Romney at 45 percent and ahead of Paul at 12 percent.
In the last month, Gingrich has retooled his New Hampshire strategy by building out a virtually non-existent structure, citing new funds as his impetus to expand. He has visited more frequently, brought in Hemingway and rapidly hired New Hampshire-based staff, most recently snagging Rep. Michele Bachmann's former New Hampshire director Jeff Chidester.
His campaign has also started rolling out "Newt Hampshire", a Granite State-focused web platform to attract supporters and get out the vote in the final weeks until the primary.
New Hampshire voters go to the polls on Tuesday, January 10.