By BETH FOUHY and SHANNON MCCAFFREY
NEW YORK - Surging in opinion polls, a confident Newt Gingrich declared Monday he plans to challenge Barack Obama in every state next year, and he began running a gauzy TV ad - his first - to push toward the Republican nomination to take on the president. But, illustrating how far he has to go, Gingrich also found himself defending the state of his campaign and his own comments about poor children.
"I do not suggest children until about 14 or 15 years of age do heavy, dangerous janitorial work," Gingrich told reporters. "On the other hand, there are a number of things done to clean buildings that are not heavy or dangerous."
He's drawn fire over the past week for suggesting that poor children as young as 9 should work at least part time cleaning their schools in order to learn about work.
As Gingrich volunteers scrambled in some states to meet deadlines to get his name on ballots, the candidate dismissed the notion that his team wasn't up to the task of waging a credible challenge against the better-funded, better-organized Mitt Romney. "We run a very decentralized campaign," Gingrich insisted. "The system works."
With only one month until the first presidential votes are cast, the GOP race has seemed to narrow to a contest between Gingrich and Romney.
Each spent the day wooing donors, Gingrich on the East Coast and Romney on the West Coast, as the hunt for cash intensified ahead of the string of costly contests that begin Jan. 3 in Iowa. The two will cross paths Wednesday as the candidates all convene in Washington to court Jewish voters and again Saturday at a debate in Iowa, the first of three planned for December.
This one is shaping up as a pivotal debate, given that Gingrich's recent comeback has been fueled largely by a string of strong performances in which he demonstrated policy expertise and was able to appear statesmanlike while steering clear of criticizing his GOP rivals. He is the latest GOP candidate to enjoy a burst of momentum and he's working to prove that, unlike the others who have risen and fallen, he's a serious contender with staying power.
To that end, Monday was supposed to be a day for the former U.S. House speaker to capitalize on Herman Cain's departure from the race and his own soaring poll numbers, making a good showing for up-for-grabs tea party supporters.
He chose heavily Democratic New York City to announce plans to campaign all across the country - not just in traditionally Republican or swing states - next fall against Obama. He packed the rest of the day with fundraisers and meetings, including one with Donald Trump, who flirted with a presidential bid himself and has sought to play a role in the GOP selection process.
But Gingrich's expected show of force didn't go exactly as planned, and the day ended up underscoring the challenges he now faces since going from the back of the pack to the front.
Twice on Monday he tried to explain what he had meant about poor kids working.
He said his original point had been "distorted" to make him look insensitive. The idea, Gingrich said, would be "to get them into the world of work, get them into the opportunity to earn money, to get them into the habit of showing up and realizing that effort is rewarded and America is all about the work ethic."
He said he had persuaded Trump to mentor a group of children from New York City's poorest schools.
"I thought it was a great idea," said Trump, who hosts the reality show "Celebrity Apprentice." ''We're going to be picking 10 young wonderful children and make them 'apprenti.' We're going to have a little fun with it."
While praising Gingrich, Trump said he would wait to endorse a candidate until after he hosts a debate in late December.
In Iowa, Gingrich's campaign rolled out a 60-second ad that projected sunny optimism.
"Some people say the America we know and love is a thing of the past. I don't believe that, because working together I know we can rebuild America," Gingrich says in the ad that's laden with Americana, down to a white picket fence, the Statue of Liberty and the American Stars and Stripes.
But there were signs, in Iowa, that Gingrich's personal and professional background was starting to become an issue in the campaign.
A group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government is circulating a new Web video reminding Republicans that Gingrich once appeared with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advocate action on climate change. Pelosi, a Democrat, is widely loathed among Republican activists, many of whom do not believe there is proof that human activity has caused climate change and oppose many efforts to regulate carbon emissions.
The same group circulated fliers earlier in the year criticizing the thrice-married Gingrich for his divorces.
Elsewhere, Gingrich's organizational struggles to catch up with his rivals were coming to light.
He has already missed the deadline to appear on the ballot in Missouri, which holds its primary Feb. 7. He insisted Monday that he did not plan to compete in that contest because it does not award delegates. Missouri Republicans have set a caucus in March to confer delegates.
The troubles are perhaps most urgent in Ohio, where candidates face a Wednesday deadline to submit between 50 and 150 signatures from registered Republicans from each of the state's 16 congressional districts.
"Newt Gingrich will not be on the Ohio Primary ballot in 2012 unless we take immediate action," read a Saturday email with the subject line, "Emergency" from a Gingrich organizer to Ohio Republicans. The message gave potential delegates just 24 hours to travel to the Gingrich headquarters to sign required forms.
And there's no indication that Gingrich's team has begun to gather signatures to meet deadlines in such states as Virginia, Illinois and Indiana, all of which are due in the next several weeks.
In New Hampshire, which hosts the nation's first primary Jan. 10, Gingrich's newly assembled team last month failed to submit a list of 20 supporters to serve as potential delegates to the GOP's national convention. It was largely a symbolic submission, but one that candidates take seriously to reward top local supporters.
Gingrich's staff, however, rounded up just 14 names scratched on state forms in messy handwriting. The other serious candidates submitted typed forms with a full slate of delegates. And former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen suggests the incident "could signal a lack of basic organization."
On Monday, Gingrich defended his bare-bones approach as one that reflects efficiencies that businesses have adopted to make them run more efficiently over a consultant-heavy approach that's "slow, cumbersome and expensive."
His approach could be more from necessity; as of Sept. 30, his campaign was in the red.
McCaffrey reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New Hampshire, Tom Beaumont in Iowa, David Lieb in Missouri and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.
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