NEW YORK - Surging in opinion polls, a confident Newt Gingrich declared Monday that he plans to challenge President Obama in every state next year, and he began running a gauzy TV ad - his first - to push toward the Republican nomination. But illustrating how far he has to go, Gingrich also found himself defending the state of his campaign and his recent comments about poor children.
"I do not suggest children until about 14 or 15 years of age do heavy, dangerous janitorial work," Gingrich said. "On the other hand, there are a number of things done to clean buildings that are not heavy or dangerous."
The former House speaker has drawn fire 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 volunteers for Gingrich scrambled in some states to meet deadlines to get his name on ballots, the candidate dismissed the notion 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 a 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, 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.
Saturday's debate is shaping up as pivotal, given that Gingrich's comeback has been fueled largely by a string of strong performances in which he demonstrated policy expertise. He is the latest candidate to enjoy a burst of momentum and is working to prove that he's a serious contender with staying power.
To that end, Monday was supposed to be a day for him to capitalize on Herman Cain's departure from the race and his own soaring poll numbers.
Gingrich 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 fund-raisers 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 the day ended up underscoring the challenges Gingrich now faces since going to the front of the pack.
Twice he tried to explain what he had meant about poor children 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."
In Iowa, Gingrich's campaign rolled out a TV ad, filled with Americana, that projected sunny optimism.
Elsewhere, Gingrich's organizational struggles to catch up with his rivals were coming to light.