Published: December 4, 2011

Surging in polls is one thing. But as Newt Gingrich seeks to turn his impressive performance in surveys into votes, he is scrambling madly to build the kind of organization that Mitt Romney has methodically put in place for a year, one that will let him compete through all 50 contests, often in multiple states at once.

Upending expectations, Mr. Gingrich has taken a decisive lead in new polls in several early-voting states, benefiting from the drift of Herman Cain supporters even before Mr. Cain suspended his campaign on Saturday. But as an adviser to his skeletal Iowa operation admitted, “The reality is we’re flying by the seat of the pants.”

If neither candidate succeeds in knocking out the other in the burst of early tests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Mr. Gingrich could be faced with the ultimate challenge to his campaign: the need to survive a war of attrition of the sort for which he is unprepared at the moment.

Where volunteers for Mr. Romney have gathered voters’ signatures to be on the ballots of Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont and Virginia, Mr. Gingrich’s campaign is only beginning to activate volunteers in those states.

And adding to the specter of a drawn-out battle is a change in the delegate selection process, which could make the contest a Republican version of the protracted 2008 Democratic primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was not resolved until all states had voted.

The Republican contest will test whether Mr. Romney’s meticulous planning can overtake a burst of momentum for Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Romney’s team has said all along that it has expected a tough battle for the nomination, and it has sought to emphasize that point in recent days with its new “earn it” rallying cry for volunteers and other supporters. But Mr. Gingrich presents an especially difficult rival for them, one who is showing signs of corralling support from the Tea Party movement and other grass-roots conservatives while also being able to point to his governing experience.

Mr. Romney, who has not wanted to focus on Republican rivals, has been forced to shift from criticizing President Obama to drawing clear distinctions with Mr. Gingrich on issues like what to do with illegal immigrants who are already in the United States and the loosening of child labor laws.

On Saturday in New Hampshire, he took aim at Mr. Gingrich’s proposal to lift children out of poverty by paying them to mop floors in their schools. “I certainly don’t agree with that,” Mr. Romney said. It would mean “repealing portions of the child labor law,” he said.

For its part, the Gingrich campaign says it is already addressing one daunting shortcoming: its fund-raising. On Monday, Mr. Gingrich planned to be in New York City visiting wealthy individuals to seek donations. In contrast with the summer, when his fund-raising utterly dried up, the well is flowing again — initially with small online donations and now, a spokesman said, the bigger prize of high-dollar donors.

“We’re seeing the return of donations closer to the $2,500 maximum per person, $5,000 per couple,” said the spokesman, R. C. Hammond, who declined to say how much Mr. Gingrich had raised since his surge in the polls began about six weeks ago. He called the latest influx “Mitt money” — a nod to Mr. Romney’s success at tapping wealthy establishment Republicans.

Lots of money will be needed as the campaign moves to larger states, beginning with Florida, which votes on Jan. 31 and where TV ads play a crucial role. Mr. Hammond said the campaign would air its first television ad in Iowa starting Monday in a one-minute commercial titled “Is the America We Love a Thing of the Past? Newt Says No.”

Should the race narrow to a head-to-head match with no decisive leader after the first four states vote in January, an extended fight could be set up because of the Republican National Committee’s new rules this year.

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