To attack more forcefully or not? That’s the dilemma former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney faces as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surges in polls and threatens Mr. Romney’s grasp on the Republican presidential nomination.
Four weeks before the first nominating contest – the Iowa caucuses – differing views are emerging. Some Romney supporters quoted in the media say it’s time for the mild-mannered Romney to get more aggressive. He can’t count on Mr. Gingrich to self-destruct or on other candidates to take Gingrich down for him, the thinking goes.
He needs to show he’s a fighter, because that will demonstrate he’s up for the task ahead: taking on President Obama in what will surely be an epic battle against a highly organized incumbent.
But others suggest Romney has to be careful. He has kept his message focused on the economy, his strong point as a former businessman, and he doesn’t want to take his eye off the ball. He also doesn’t want to bathe himself in negativity right as many GOP voters are beginning to pay attention to the race in earnest.
When asked Tuesday whether it’s time for Romney to attack Gingrich, one Romney adviser said no. “I don’t think that he fundamentally changes his strategy in the direction of an attack on Newt,” former Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. “He’s building a campaign capable of defeating President Obama.”
In particular, Gingrich’s rocky personal past – marital infidelities, two messy divorces – is best left for others to discuss, says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
For Romney to go there “lowers him a notch in the eyes of voters,” says Mr. Wayne. “He’s got an economic focus going against Obama, and he should stay on that route. The moment people turn from the economy to social conservatism or other issues, Romney loses his advantage.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell agrees that Romney has to be careful.
“Romney’s caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Mr. O’Connell, head of the CivicForumPAC. “He can’t rely on Newt being Newt. But if he goes after him, he looks like a whiner and out of character. He’s got to hope another person or organization comes up with information on Gingrich.”
In a mild way, Romney has already upped his game against Gingrich, calling him a Washington insider who isn’t the sure-thing nominee that Gingrich has portrayed himself to be.
"I must admit that Newt has had a very extensive, long record of working in Washington with various governmental and nongovernmental agencies, and I just don't think that's the background that's ideally suited, one, to replace Barack Obama, and No. 2, to lead the country," Romney said on Fox News last Friday. "This is not a matter of that America needs better lobbyists, or better dealmakers, better insiders – I think America needs a leader."
Romney surrogates have also made polite attacks on Gingrich, without getting too deep into the weeds on Gingrich’s professional past.
“Gingrich has never run anything, and he’s been a legislator,” New Jersey governor and Romney backer Chris Christie (R) told a Florida website, FLDemocracy2012.com, last week. “Look at the guy we have in the White House now, he never ran anything and was a legislator.”
Polls show that while many GOP voters have warmed to the Gingrich candidacy, some remain unaware of his baggage: the fact that he was driven from the speakership in 1998 amid charges of weak leadership and under an ethical cloud, after just four years; the $1.6 million to $1.8 million he received in fees for advising controversial mortgage giant Freddie Mac; a record of flip-flopping on policy issues.
Mr. O’Connell suggests that it matters how new information comes out on Gingrich. If it comes from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi or a pro-Romney super political action committee, voters are likely to discount it.
Fergus Cullen, a former GOP state chair in New Hampshire, says that because Gingrich represents a threat to everyone in the Republican field – including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul – Romney will get help.
Mr. Cullen also questions the notion that Romney will look bad if he goes after Gingrich.
“Romney went after Perry on substance back in September, and it didn’t harm Romney’s image,” says Cullen, who is neutral in the race. “In fact, it made him look tough, and strong enough to take on President Obama. So having Newt as a foil can help Romney.”