Mitts Off!
Romney goes nuclear.


Robert Costa

As Newt Gingrich surges, Mitt Romney is attempting to kneecap the former House speaker, dispatching his top surrogates to slam Gingrich as an egotist and an “untrustworthy conservative.”

In a conference call with Beltway reporters on Thursday morning, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and former Missouri senator Jim Talent blasted Gingrich’s record, from his “self-aggrandizement” as speaker to his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan.

“The off-the-cuff [remarks] that Gingrich throws out on occasion [are] a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking that he goes through to deal with issues, and that is not what you want in a commander-in-chief,” said Sununu, a former White House chief of staff in the George H.W. Bush administration. Gingrich, he added, has consistently displayed “irrational behavior.”

Talent, who served with Gingrich in Congress, concurred. “Speaker Gingrich was an unreliable leader,” he said. “You were in a situation where you would get up in the morning, and you would have to check the newspaper, the clippings — that was before the Internet — to see what the speaker had said that day, and what you were going to have to clean up.”

The comments from Sununu and Talent highlight the Romney campaign’s latest strategy, confronting Gingrich about his entire record, both in Congress and elsewhere. Publicly, Romney himself is remaining above the fray, focusing on extensive business and managerial experience. In campaign videos, Romney adopts a positive tone, touting his years in the private sector and his longtime marriage to his wife, Ann.

But behind the scenes, it’s a different story. Romney advisers are prepping for a potentially long, brutal battle for the nomination, and today’s remarks were the opening salvo. “This is the time in a campaign where issues will be contrasted between the candidates and I suspect you’re going to hear more than just contrasting styles; you’re going to hear contrasting positions on issues, particularly entitlement reform,” Sununu said, hinting at the coming barrage.

“This is entirely predictable,” says Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire–based GOP strategist who managed Sen. John McCain’s successful Granite State primary campaigns. “Quite frankly, it’s what Mitt Romney needs to do to try and stop Gingrich’s momentum. He can’t go any further without contrasting with Gingrich. This is standard-operating procedure: carting out one of your big endorsements in the state and seeing what kind of damage they can wage.”

A memo sent to Romney supporters on Capitol Hill underscored this maneuver, detailing the “talking points” the campaign hopes its boosters will use, such as “Gingrich creates theories; Mitt creates jobs,” “Newt Gingrich has run for office 14 times; Mitt Romney spent his career in the private sector,” and “it’s Newt Gingrich who is the social engineer.”

On the call, Talent pointed out that the campaign’s attacks are not meant to be personal, and resisted the opportunity to make personal attacks. Rather, he said, the criticism is part of Romney’s electability argument. “He’ll beat Barack Obama by the biggest possible margin,” he said.