Walford, Iowa — Newt Gingrich is done being Mr. Nice Guy.
Facing the prospect of placing fourth or worse in the Iowa caucuses, the former frontrunner is looking long term and trying to regain momentum by targeting Mitt Romney directly.
On CBS’s The Early Show this morning, Gingrich aggressively attacked Romney, calling him a “liar” and claiming Romney had created a ”pretense that he’s a conservative.”
Gingrich’s spokesman R. C. Hammond has suggested that “we’ll have a more pointed and honest message about Mitt Romney,” in reference to the evolution of their campaign strategy in light of Gingrich’s falling poll numbers.
Gingrich is already beginning to draw the contrast. “I feel very confident about our ability over the next two or three months to allow the country to organize itself,” he told reporters yesterday, “and say, okay, you have a conservative who knows what he’s doing who was with Reagan at a time when Romney was an independent. . . . You have a conservative who wrote the Contract with America at a time when Romney repudiated it.”
That wasn’t the end of his series of attacks against Romney, whom he now repeatedly calls a “Massachusetts moderate.”
“You have a conservative whose record of controlling government spending is dramatically better than Romney’s,” Gingrich continued. “And you have a conservative who voted against tax increases while Romney as governor raised taxes. You have a right-to-life candidate while Romney had state-paid, tax-paid abortions and put Planned Parenthood in Romneycare.”
While Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are likely to also beat Gingrich in the Iowa caucuses, Romney is the only candidate Gingrich is focused on right now. Asked specifically if a Santorum win in Iowa would result in the campaign offering criticisms of him too, Hammond says, “No. Rick’s a good guy.”
And while Gingrich likely won’t add an Iowa top-three finish to his credentials in the not-Romney race, he has one key asset: the $9.6 million war chest he accumulated this quarter during his boomlet, money that will enable him to stay in the race longer than some of his other less well-funded competitors.
But for Gingrich, targeting Romney could lead to an awkward change in message. Even as Romney made sly digs at Gingrich, comparing him to Lucille Ball’s ditsy character in I Love Lucy and referring to him as “zany,” Gingrich — with the notable exception of one comment holding Romney responsible for layoffs due to his work at Bain Capital — mostly remained mum, instead making a positive approach a cornerstone of his campaign. “One of the reasons I’ve tried to run a positive campaign is that I really believe that we are in trouble. And I think to get out of trouble, we have to have a positive conversation about real solutions,” he told the audience yesterday at a campaign stop in Independence, Iowa, at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center (home to the world’s largest tractor).
But for Gingrich, there may be no alternative to targeting Romney. Forty-five percent of all political ads aired in Iowa since December 1 were attack ads against Gingrich, according to an analysis by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, and his sinking poll numbers are proof of the ads’ effectiveness. Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Romney, has been especially aggressive with the ads. So far, Romney has refused to call on the PAC to stop airing the ads.
In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity yesterday, Romney breezily dismissed Gingrich’s complaints about the attack ads, accusing the former House speaker of “whining.” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, is casual about Gingrich’s newly aggressive rhetoric. “We understand that in the closing days of a race the elbows become sharper and fly a little bit higher,” he says. “We’re going to stay focused on Mitt’s message of turning around the economy and creating jobs.”
Gingrich has no plans to quit the race. Asked if a last-place finish in Iowa would be acceptable, Hammond responded, “Anything ending in place qualifies us to move on.” Gingrich needs to claw his way back up — according to the campaign, that means bringing down Romney, the “moderate” candidate whom voters may settle for in a cycle when they could choose a credentialed conservative such as Gingrich.
Meanwhile, Gingrich is arguing he’s ripe for another comeback. “Whatever I do tomorrow night will be a victory because I’m still standing,” he said in Independence.
“Twice, people tried to drag me out of the race,” Gingrich added, referring to Romney’s “paid media” as the cause of his second downfall. “And I’m still here.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.