CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa –- After months of distancing himself from a contentious Medicare overhaul, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney chided Newt Gingrich on Friday for calling the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “right-wing social engineering" -- seeking to undercut his chief rival among conservatives fervid about reducing the deficit.
That Romney picked the Ryan plan out of all of Gingrich’s personal and political baggage during a rare campaign appearance in Iowa lays down a marker for Saturday’s nationally televised debate in Des Moines and reflects a calculated risk.
By tying himself more closely to radical Medicare reform, Romney invites Democratic attacks that he would blow up a lifeline for many senior citizens. That criticism could be a liability in a general election campaign in which Romney would be seeking crossover support from Democrats and independent voters more cautious about entitlement reform.
Romney apparently believes it is worth the risk, in order to signal to the conservative activists who dominate the nominating process that he is serious about deficit reduction. "He's trying to shore up his conservative bona fides," said Doug Gross, a Republican operative who headed Romney's campaign in Iowa in 2008. "The old adage is you attack where you are the weakest."
A brutal Internet ad lashes out at his surging rival for attacking a congressional leader in his own party, while a radio spot features Ryan praising Romney’s economic plan. “When [Ryan’s] plan came out I applauded it as a very important step,’’ Romney told about 150 people gathered in the warehouse of an animal feed manufacturing plant. “This is a place where Speaker Gingrich and I disagree. He called this right-wing social engineering.... To protect Medicare and to protect Social Security we’re going to have to make changes like the ones Ryan proposed."
Yet Romney initially avoided questions about whether he would sign the legislation if elected president. And a close look at the objections he and Gingrich have raised to Ryan’s plan shows that they would both try to preserve the program’s traditional fee-for-service option.
Romney's newfound emphasis on Ryan’s proposal is likely to revive the time-worn attack that he flip-flops on issues depending on the political winds. The forced pivot reflects Romney’s imperative to retool his campaign strategy in the face of Gingrich’s unexpected rise in the polls.
Just a couple of months ago, Romney was exploiting voters’ sensitivity to entitlement reform when he bashed Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme," pitching himself as a steady steward of the trust fund.
The former Massachusetts governor appeared to thread the needle on Friday by emphasizing Gingrich’s harsh criticism over his own qualified support for the Ryan plan, noting that his approach would be "a little different."
That Romney is willing to take the risk of yoking himself to a sweeping Medicare overhaul shows the gravity of the threat Gingrich poses to his campaign. The latest polls show Gingrich’s lead widening here in Iowa and in other early-voting states and Romney’s longtime dominance in New Hampshire, which votes one week after Iowa, starting to fade.
“I think it’s a smart strategy by Romney, because the debt is such a top issue for caucus-goers," said Tim Albrecht, a longtime Republican activist and top aide to Gov. Terry Branstad. “What Mitt Romney hopes to do is chip away at that plurality Gingrich is getting, to put a chink in his armor.... It’s an issue that almost took Gingrich out the first time and maybe could take him out again."
Gingrich apologized back in May for his harsh criticism of the Ryan plan, but the dustup and other campaign fumbles rendered him a minor player in the primaries until recently.
After weeks in which the harshest thing Romney said about Gingrich was that he’s a "career politician," he and his allies are ramping up their criticism. On Monday, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said, "I don't think Newt Gingrich cares about conservative principles. Newt Gingrich cares about Newt Gingrich." And a so-called "super PAC" created on Romney’s behalf is poised to spend $3.1 million.
On Friday, Romney sought to rise above the fray by saying, “I can’t write a script for John Sununu or anyone else" and promising that “my distinctions are going to focus on ideas." But later in the day, his own campaign circulated negative reviews of Gingrich's leadership as House speaker from his former colleagues.
Gingrich, who has lambasted debate moderators for trying to stir up fights between the candidates, is pushing back. His campaign arranged for a phone call on Friday with two of his top Iowa supporters and billed it this way: “The $3 million in negative advertising being offered by Mitt Romney and his cohorts is an insult to any caucus goers and a sign of unbridled panic." Former Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, who served with Gingrich in the 1990s, said, "I saw a great leader."