Under pressure from the surging campaign of Newt Gingrich, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign on Thursday launched a counteroffensive against the former House speaker, using allies from the Republican establishment to land some hard-hitting punches without getting its own hands dirty.
Romney’s strategy is coming into clear focus now: Use surrogates to rip apart Gingrich while outside backers spend prodigiously in Iowa to make a play for the first-in-the-nation caucuses. On both fronts, until now, Romney’s campaign had been cautious, uncertain of how to handle the rise of Gingrich and whether to aggressively contest Iowa.
It’s now clear Romney’s campaign has chosen a much more aggressive approach.
Romney’s campaign deployed two top surrogates – New Hampshire kingmaker John Sununu and former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri -- to drive home the message that Gingrich is an erratic politician and an unreliable conservative.
“Gingrich’s undercutting of [Wisconsin Republican congressman] Paul Ryan proves he’s more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles,” Sununu said on a conference call organized by the Romney campaign this morning. Sununu castigated Gingrich for saying in May that Ryan's Medicare-reform plan amounted to “right-wing social engineering.” During the conference call, Talent said if Gingrich is the nominee, Obama would win the election.
The Romney campaign is also sending anti-Newt talking points to congressional allies, according to Politico, with one bullet point arguing: “Gingrich creates theories, Mitt creates jobs.”
The criticisms, even from a surrogate, mark a tactical shift for the Romney campaign, which had for weeks largely ignored Gingrich despite his emergence as a threat for the nomination.
“There are dozens of things in Newt’s record that you can challenge that aren’t that popular with primary voters once they learn about it,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “You can’t go out and debate 48 issues in the next few weeks, but you can pick six or eight.”
On the same morning as the Sununu-Talent conference call, scheduled by the Romney campaign, GOP operative Karl Rove landed with a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “Gingrich’s Organizational Deficit Disorder.” Rove wrote that it was “embarrassing for” the Gingrich campaign to be so poorly organized.
“When a man of his self-confidence begins to feel on top of the world, bad things often happen,” Rove warned.
Neither Rove nor Black is officially aligned with any candidate -- though Rove has regularly excoriated Romney rivals from his post as a Fox News analyst -- but both men have close ties to the Bush family, and Gingrich has been in bad odor with that dynasty dating back to 1990, when President George H.W. Bush saw a budget deal he had negotiated with Democratic congressional leaders blow up after Gingrich walked away from it. Bush's vice president, Dan Quayle, endorsed Romney earlier this week and the former president received Romney for a visit at his Houston home.
Romney is getting assistance on another front – the well-funded super PAC Restore Our Future, which just poured $3.1 million into Iowa for an anti-Obama television ad that makes no mention of Gingrich.
The ad contrasts Romney’s business background with Obama’s economic track record.
"Mitt Romney turned around dozens of American companies and helped create thousands of jobs," says the announcer.
A second ad on Romney's behalf, however, goes after Gingrich hard. Though the spot appeared briefly on the Romney campaign's YouTube page on Thursday, it was subsequently removed. A campaign spokesman said it was "an unfinished ad" and declined further comment.
The political news site Political Wire obtained a copy of the ad, which opens with a shot of a grinning President Obama as the narrator asks, "Why is this man smiling?" Then, as an image of Gingrich appears, the narrator continues: "Because his plan is working. Brutally attack Mitt Romney and hope Newt Gingrich is his opponent. Why? Newt has a ton of baggage."
The ad then cites Gingrich's fines for ethics violations while in Congress; taking $1.6 million from Freddie Mac; and accepting $37 million from health care and industry groups.
It also directs viewers to a website, "NewtFacts.com," which was password-protected as of Thursday night.
Still, attacking Gingrich carries risks. Running ads in Iowa increases the perception it’s the first battleground for Gingrich and Romney, even though the state’s evangelical tilt makes it difficult terrain for Romney. And attacks among the candidates have yet to go over well with Republican voters this primary; Perry’s attempt to criticize Romney during debates earlier this year did little to stop his plummet in the polls. Gingrich, in fact, has stridently refused to attack his opponents, training his fire exclusively on President Obama instead. On Thursday he indicated that he doesn’t plan to change.
“My only observation,” Gingrich said, “is every time these guys have attacked each other, they’ve gone down. So I don’t know that being the attack dog in the Republican Party is necessarily an asset, you know a big asset. It’s not a game I’m going to play.”
Sarah B. Boxer contributed