UPDATED: Newt Gingrich's campaign became the first in North Carolina to announce a leadership team, another sign that the state's May 8 primary may matter in the contests for the Republican presidential nomination.
Tom Fetzer, a lobbyist and former state party chairman, will serve as chairman for Gingrich's campaign in the Tar Heel state. Kiernan Shanahan, a Raleigh attorney and former state party finance director, will take the finance director role. Karen Rotterman, a Raleigh consultant who helped elect former Gov. Jim Martin and President George W. Bush, will tackle the political strategy.
In making the announcement, Gingrich's campaign suggested the North Carolina primary -- though late in the nomination process -- could play a role in picking the GOP nominee. "North Carolina will be a key state in the Republican primary process and a crucial battleground state in the fall of 2012," Gingrich said in a statement.
Just yesterday, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said a muddled race with no clear favorite candidate will extend the contest and make the state relevant.
Fetzer and Shanahan are serving as volunteers while Rotterman is a paid consultant.
In a recent meeting in Washington, Shanahan said the Gingrich campaign mapped at least one scenario where North Carolina delegates will matter. "There is a scenario not unlike Obama and Clinton in 2008," Shanahan said, referring to the protracted Democratic nomination in 2008.
Shanahan called Gingrich "an agent of fundamental change" with leadership credentials and solutions. He dismisses the idea that he is merely the latest flavor of the month for fickle Republican voters who have cycled through Rick Perry and Herman Cain in recent weeks. "His surge is more intense and more sustained than others," he said.
North Carolina often plays second fiddle to its neighbor South Carolina, which hosts the "first in the South" primary every four years. And it's unclear whether other campaigns -- particularly Mitt Romney's team -- also will lay the groundwork in the state.
"I think North Carolina days being ignored by both parties in the presidential primaries are over," Fetzer said. "This is a battleground state."