Behind Gingrich's Rise, Billionaire Pal Sheldon Adelson

Sheldon Adelson places big bets on an old friend.

ByABC News
January 25, 2012, 10:00 AM

Jan. 25, 2012 -- Before Newt Gingrich dominated the South Carolina primary, a so-called super PAC supporting him spent millions of dollars savaging Mitt Romney in negative ads and fliers.

A driving force behind that super PAC is Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino tycoon who has translated his deep friendship with Gingrich into a financial bonanza to buoy his candidacy. Adelson gave the PAC, Winning Our Future, $5 million just before the South Carolina primary, and this week, his wife gave the group another $5 million.

The Adelsons make Mitt Romney look like Tom Joad. Adelson, the eighth-richest American, is worth more than $20 billion. He built the iconic Venetian hotel (and another in Macao to match) and has given to a host of Jewish causes — in addition to funding a nonprofit group that led to Gingrich's presidential run.

Adelson met Gingrich when he was the speaker of the House, and they bonded over their dedication to support Israel as Congress debated passing a bill that would encourage the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to be moved to Jerusalem, the capital. Since then they've been friends, with obvious benefits.

"He admires and likes Newt for his intellect and his creativity, and those are two traits that are very strong with Sheldon himself," said Robert List, a former governor of Nevada who was Adelson's legal counsel when he acquired the historic Sands Hotel. "It's no surprise that he's liked Newt from the beginning."

In October, Adelson attended a fundraiser for Gingrich at a Las Vegas restaurant owned by George Harris, a former political consultant who worked for the casino baron for years and ate lunch with him every day. They raised $60,000 for Gingrich.

Next week, Gingrich is due back at the restaurant, and so is Adelson, Harris said. Nevada's Republican caucus is Feb. 4.

"Sheldon Adelson — if he said he's going to do something, he does it," Harris said. "He's a humongous supporter of Newt. They're friends. They're buddies. It's a true relationship."

The money that the Adelsons have given to Winning Our Future is double what the super PAC has already spent to support Gingrich, which is just over $5 million as of Wednesday. It's unclear how much money the group has ready to spend, because super PACs aren't required to report how much they've raised until the end of January — after the four first primary contests.

Lifted by the donation from Adelson's wife, Winning Our Future is placing a big bet on the Florida primary, spending $6 million to run a TV ad that demonizes the health care plan that Romney led in Massachusetts.

The plan is awfully similar to what happened in South Carolina, where Romney's lead over the other candidates shrank by the day as the pro-Gingrich super PAC crowded the airwaves with anti-Romney commercials. Now the PAC is spending much more in Florida, though the Adelsons are said to have asked that the ads be positive.

"He wants to advance Newt's cause," List said. "He'll do what he can to help."

Gingrich was seen as a serious candidate only recently, months after Adelson first attended that Las Vegas fundraiser for him in October. The headlines were about Romney, and Gingrich was being called a long-shot. In some ways, Adelson's friends saw a parallel to a meeting with his senior staff when he was describing his vision to build a "new Las Vegas strip" in Macao.