ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is frantically playing catch-up in the Republican presidential race, spending precious time trying to get on Virginia's primary ballot while his rivals campaign in crucial Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Gingrich was paying a price for his late start in organizing. He had to leave New Hampshire on Wednesday and race to Virginia, where he needs 10,000 valid voters' signatures by Thursday to secure a spot on the March 6 ballot.
Virginia is an afterthought for most campaigns at this early stage. They are intensely focused on the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, which will be followed by primaries in South Carolina and Florida.
But Mr. Gingrich's early-December rise in several polls gave him renewed hopes of carrying his campaign deep into the primary season. Failure to compete in Virginia, which is among the "Super Tuesday" primaries, would deal a huge blow to any contender who had not locked up the nomination by then.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Texan, want to knock Mr. Gingrich out long before Virginia. Their campaigns and allied groups are saturating the Iowa airwaves with anti-Gingrich ads.
The tone has gotten so nasty that Mr. Gingrich is calling on Mr. Romney to halt the ads, or at least defend them in a 90-minute Iowa faceoff. Mr. Gingrich also mounted a separate petition drive, seeking signatures from voters who don't want to see Republican candidates ripping into one another.
"Attacking fellow Republicans only helps one person: Barack Obama," the petition says.
Republican insiders see Mr. Romney, in particular, as having the money, experience and organization needed to survive a long campaign. That makes it urgent for Mr. Gingrich to get on all the big-state ballots if he hopes to win the party's nod.
Mr. Gingrich said Wednesday he had enough ballot signatures, but he wanted to come to Virginia to deliver them personally. Taking no chances, his volunteers asked everyone to sign petitions before entering Mr. Gingrich's rally Wednesday night in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Mr. Gingrich, who arrived more than an hour late, was campaigning Thursday in Richmond with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed none of the nomination-seekers.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, continued his bus tour of New Hampshire, the closest thing to a must-win state for him. For the most part, Mr. Romney is letting hard-hitting ads from the Restore Our Future super-PAC do the ruffian's work against Mr. Gingrich. The PAC is made up of former Romney advisers.
On Wednesday, Mr. Romney taunted Gingrich, who has objected to the attacks as he falls in several polls.
"I'm sure I could go out and say, 'Please, don't do anything negative,'" Mr. Romney told Fox News, "but this is politics. And if you can't stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until Obama's hell's kitchen turns up the heat."
Mr. Gingrich shot back from Manchester, N.H., "If he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week." He said Mr. Romney could "bring his ads and he can defend them."
In Arlington, Gingrich mocked Mr. Romney for saying he can't tell Restore Our Future to halt its ads because campaign laws require candidates and PACs to operate independently of one another. If Mr. Romney publicly announced his desire to see the ads stop, Gingrich said, those airing them probably would hear of it.
Mr. Gingrich vowed to stay positive, even as he said Mr. Romney had "no willingness to stand up and tell the truth."
Mr. Paul is campaigning this week in Iowa, a wide-open state he potentially could win. He drew large crowds at several town-hall meetings in eastern Iowa on Wednesday.
But few campaign veterans think Mr. Paul, whose strong libertarian views give him an intense but limited following, can draw enough support nationwide to win the nomination.
Mr. Gingrich hopes to do well enough in the first two contests to make it to South Carolina and Florida. They border Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years, ending in 1999.