Romney camp shifts into attack mode as Gingrich threatens (Video)

A new Romney ad released Friday lambasts Newt Gingrich for his criticism last spring of a fellow Republican. The gloves are off, but the Romney campaign is so far using surrogates for the fight.

Cliff Owen/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the 2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, on Dec. 7, in Washington.

Mitt Romney is getting tough – Romney-style.

The former governor of Massachusetts is taking on Newt Gingrich – finally, say supporters – after being eclipsed by the former House speaker in polls for the Republican presidential nomination. But Mr. Romney is largely delegating the attacks to others.

In an ad released Friday morning, the Romney campaign went after Mr. Gingrich for attacking fellow Republican Paul Ryan, a rising star in the party, over his plan last spring to reform Medicare. He had called the plan “right-wing social engineering.” Romney himself doesn’t appear in the ad. Instead, his campaign relies on clips of other Republicans and conservative commentators to make his case.

“He doesn’t have the discipline that you want in a president,” columnist Charles Krauthammer says of Gingrich.  

“He called [the Ryan plan] radical … basically he is out on the left wing of the Republican Party,” says commentator Pat Buchanan.

In the finale, the ad has a clip of Represenative Ryan himself speaking of Gingrich’s criticism at the time: “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, two Romney surrogates – former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri –also criticized Gingrich for his approach to Ryan's plan, which the Romney campaign presents as emblematic of Gingrich's overall character. Mr. Sununu accused Gingrich of “irrational behavior” and “anti-principled actions.” Mr. Talent said Gingrich was “not a reliable and trusted conservative leader.”

“What he did to Paul Ryan is a perfect example of irrational behavior that you do not want in the commander-in-chief,” said Sununu, who also served as White House chief of staff under the first President Bush

The Romney campaign has made clear there will be more such calls. The campaign has also released an ad focused on Romney’s history of personal constancy – including his 42-year marriage to Ann Romney, complete with footage of the Romneys and their brood of boys. The unspoken contrast is to Gingrich, who has been divorced twice and has admitted to extramarital affairs.

Previous challengers to Romney’s once steady if underwhelming lead in GOP polls have faded without Romney having to lift a finger. But Gingrich is different. He may be the last conservative standing, and now with a solid lead in polls, both nationally and in early-nominating states, Gingrich poses a significant threat to Romney’s aspirations for the presidency.

The dilemma for Romney has been how to go on the attack without damaging his image. For now, surrogates seem to be the answer. Saturday night’s debate in Iowa could be the next telling chapter in the Romney-versus.-Gingrich smack-down. Also in Romney’s corner is the Restore Our Future PAC – a well-funded “super PAC” that launched a $3.1 million ad buy in Iowa focusing on Romney’s leadership in Massachusetts. In coming days, the group may reportedly also go negative on Gingrich.

Another player who could help Romney is Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, a favorite of libertarian-leaning Republicans. His campaign has been running an anti-Gingrich ad in Iowa, called “Serial Hypocrisy,” and is set to start airing it in New Hampshire, according to CNN.

Romney himself has promised to step up his personal appearances in early-nominating states and in the media. He says it’s time for his “closing argument.”

Romney supporters have taken some solace in Gingrich’s relative lack of money and organization, in comparison with Romney’s well-funded, highly organized operation. Four years ago, it was the super-organized Barack Obama who upset Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination by wedding organization and advisers’ granular knowledge of each state’s rules with passionate followers.

In this cycle’s Republican race, it’s Gingrich who has momentum from enthusiastic supporters. But it’s Romney who is best equipped to slog through a long nomination fight, going from state to state, contest to contest, potentially for several months.

“This will probably take longer than a week or two to sort out,” Romney told reporters in Arizona earlier this week, according to Politico. “My expectation is that it’s going to be a campaign that is going to go on for a while.”

Romney may well be right. Unlike four years ago, the Republicans are awarding some convention delegates proportionally, not winner take all, in contests that take place before April 1. That means fewer delegates will be awarded in the early contests, making it more likely the GOP primary battle will drag on longer than it did four years ago. In 2008 the nomination fight was effectively over in January, when John McCain beat Romney in the Florida primary.

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