With Newt Gingrich, how long can Mitt Romney afford to play nice?

Newt Gingrich opponents have been hoping his campaign would implode on its own. Some analysts say Mitt Romney will need to turn up the heat and confront Newt Gingrich head-on.

Richard Shiro/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Tommy's Ham House Wednesday in Greenville , S.C.

Newt Gingrich’s opponents have been hoping his campaign would implode on its own. But now, as he continues to soar in polls, they’re cooking up ways to try to pop his balloon. 

The Ron Paul YouTube video making the rounds since yesterday, which said Mr. Gingrich was guilty of “serial hypocrisy,” is likely just the opening salvo in a brewing attack on the new top contender.

“Gingrich has to prepare for quite an assault, probably from several different directions,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

As the early January votes in Iowa and New Hampshire approach, Mitt Romney will have to confront Gingrich head-on because “he is a mortal danger to [Romney] in those contests,” Professor Sabato says.

In national polls, Gingrich is in front at 23.8 percent, followed by Mr. Romney at 21.3 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average of results from Nov. 13 to 20. 

Recent polls in Florida show Gingrich with an even stronger, double-digit lead over Romney. And in New Hampshire, Gingrich has won the influential endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader.

But so far, Romney has taken a rather mild-mannered approach to his nearest rival.

In a Fox News interview earlier this week that some observers say showed weak spots in the Romney campaign, he labeled Gingrich a “lifelong politician.” And he’s been continuing to hit that theme.

“The problem with this attack is that Newt can point to his success on conservative issues in Washington during that time where others cannot,” writes Michael Dennehy, an unaligned GOP strategist, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “So this will likely come down to who can shout the loudest – or SPEND the most on attack ads.” 

One strategy of the Romney campaign, Politico reports today, will be  “to increase the attention to Romney’s wife of 42 years and five sons in the hopes of sparking more conversation about Gingrich’s three marriages without raising the topic themselves.”

If Romney sticks to those subtle approaches, it won’t be effective, Sabato says. “If Romney was a strong front-runner that would probably be sufficient, but he’s not. There’s tremendous resistance to him,” he says.

Romney’s strategists seem in no rush to have him go on the offensive too aggressively, given the danger that it could hurt his own image. In a Washington Post article Nov. 30, one unnamed adviser said, “It’s not going to be an overnight kind of thing, unless [Gingrich] steps in it. But he seems less likely than others to do that.”

Meanwhile, some of Gingrich’s other opponents have been stepping up to take him to task for statements that illegal immigrants who have spent a long time in the United States and have assimilated should be allowed to stay, and for his role in Washington since he left Congress, which some have equated to profitable lobbying.

Negative ads don’t usually start flying this early in primary races, but two features of this particular race may explain why Gingrich’s opponents are eager to start flinging arrows now, says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied negative campaigning.

One is that some of his opponents still have a chance to rise to the top. “The field is sufficiently fluid that you don’t want to let Gingrich get out of control and become the 800-pound gorilla,” Professor Geer says. The other is that the field of GOP candidates has “some pretty serious flaws,” leaving the candidates open to criticism.

It’s good for the process when opponents bring those flaws to the attention of voters, Geer says, but there is “a line, and sometimes candidates push it too far.”

In the 2008 presidential contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, for instance, Mr. McCain had to backpedal after an ad accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners – a twisted interpretation of his actual policy stance.  

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