US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened a broad and newly abrasive assault on surging rival Newt Gingrich, dispatching supporters and staff to cast the former House of Representatives leader as unworthy of the nomination and unfit to be US president.
Romney is aiming to undermine Gingrich on personal and professional fronts ahead of the campaign’s opening contest on Jan. 3 in Iowa — a reversal by the one-time front-runner who had previously all but ignored his Republican opponents.
The criticism on Thursday from Romney and his allies, after months of focusing solely on US President Barack Obama, comes as the race has developed into a two-person contest. Gingrich’s quick rise in national and early-state polls threatens Romney’s claim as the likeliest Republican to be chosen to challenge Obama next fall.
The two will clash during a nationally televised debate tonight.
Gingrich has amassed a sizable lead with a month remaining until Iowa casts the first ballots in a nationwide nominating process to choose a Republican candidate.
“He’s not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader,” former US senator Jim Talent, a Romney supporter, said of Gingrich, offering a preview of the attacks Romney’s team promised would continue in the next few weeks.
Romney allies also were giving him a boost, announcing a US$3.1 million TV ad campaign in Iowa that is expected to include hard-hitting commercials against Gingrich. One ad boasts of Romney’s “steadiness and constancy,” while inviting comparisons with Gingrich’s multiple marriages and late conversion to Catholicism.
Campaigning in South Carolina, Gingrich brushed off the verbal assault.
“We’re focused on remaining positive,” he said.
Gingrich’s reluctance to engage may be out of necessity. He dramatically lags Romney in organizational firepower as he tries to rebuild his campaign after an early summer implosion that left it deep in debt.
Gingrich’s rise, although he still trails Romney in New Hampshire — the second state to choose a candidate — reflects conservative Republicans’ growing belief that his bare-knuckles political style has a better chance of defeating Obama. The president’s job approval rating has plummeted over his handling of the US economy. Voters are in a sour mood over an 8.6 percent unemployment rate and millions of home mortgage foreclosures.
Doubts about Romney among conservative Republicans and members of the small-government, low-tax Tea Party wing have kept his candidacy from ever gaining more than about 25 percent support in the polls.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll in Iowa shows 43 percent of likely caucusgoers said Gingrich “has the best experience to be president,” compared with 16 percent for Romney. They also trusted Gingrich more than Romney by big margins on handling the economy and immigration.
Romney continues to promote himself as a business leader, and his new ad, featuring grainy home videos of his wife and five sons, also paints him as a strong family and church leader.
“I’m a man of steadiness and constancy. I don’t think you’re going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do,” Romney said.
He is a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons.