ARLINGTON, Va. — 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.
The former House speaker is paying a price for his late start in organizing. Gingrich 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 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.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas, want to knock 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 Gingrich is calling on Romney to halt the ads, or at least defend them in a 90-minute Iowa face-off. Gingrich also mounted a separate petition drive, seeking signatures from voters who don't want to see Republican candidates ripping into each other.
"Attacking fellow Republicans only helps one person: Barack Obama," the petition says.
Republican insiders see Romney, in particular, as having the money, experience and organization needed to survive a long campaign. That makes it urgent for Gingrich to get on all the big-state ballots if he hopes to win the party's nod.
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 Gingrich's rally Wednesday night in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Gingrich, who arrived more than an hour late, planned to campaign Thursday in Richmond with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed none of the nomination-seekers.
Romney, meanwhile, continued his bus tour of New Hampshire, the closest thing to a must-win state for him. For the most part, Romney is letting hard-hitting ads from the Restore Our Future "super PAC" do the ruffian's work against Gingrich. The PAC is made up of former Romney advisers.
On Wednesday, 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,'" 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."
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 Romney could "bring his ads and he can defend them."
In Arlington, Gingrich mocked 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 each other. If Romney publicly announced his desire to see the ads stop, Gingrich said, those airing them probably would hear of it.
Gingrich vowed to stay positive, even as he said Romney had "no willingness to stand up and tell the truth."
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 Paul, whose strong libertarian views give him an intense but limited following, can draw enough support nationwide to win the nomination.