Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich sought Thursday to reduce expectations that he would win the Iowa caucuses as his momentum stalls in national polls.
The former speaker also sharpened his criticism of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to blunt a barrage of negative advertisements Romney’s backers have unleashed against him.
“I never said I’d come in first in Iowa,” Gingrich told reporters at a rally in Virginia that drew only a couple of dozen people to a Richmond-area hotel ballroom. “There was a period when I was the front-runner, but frankly, if you get $7 million or $9 million of ads -- most of them false -- the sheer weight of negativity has a real impact.”
Gingrich said he could imagine Texas Rep. Ron Paul winning Iowa, or “a number of other scenarios,” adding, “It’s going to be a really interesting two weeks.”
Earlier, Gingrich downplayed the significance of an Iowa loss during an appearance before more than 200 Republicans at a breakfast in Short Pump, Va. Finishing in the top three or four in the Jan. 3 caucuses there, placing in the top two in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 and winning contests in South Carolina and Florida later that month would still position him to be the Republican nominee, he said.
“From then on, I think it becomes a fairly easy race,” Gingrich said.
Romney received a boost, picking up the informal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush.
“Romney is the best choice for us,” Bush said in comments published by the Houston Chronicle Thursday.
The former president told reporters that he supported Romney because of his “stability, experience, principles. He’s a fine person,” he said. “I just think he’s mature and reasonable -- not a bomb-thrower.”
Romney has rolled out high-profile endorsements in recent weeks, including from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Some Republicans have raised concerns that Gingrich would be a weak general election nominee, citing his propensity for embroiling his party in controversy.
Bush, the father of former President George W. Bush, recounted how Gingrich broke ranks with his party at the last minute during negotiations over a bipartisan 1990 budget agreement. The intra-party dispute weakened Bush as he entered the 1992 re-election campaign, which he lost to President Bill Clinton.
“I’m not his biggest advocate,” the elder Bush said of Gingrich, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Stumping in Virginia as he mounted a late push to gather the 10,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot for the state’s March 6 primary, Gingrich also portrayed Romney as insufficiently conservative to win the backing of the state’s Republicans.
“When you get down to a choice between a Massachusetts moderate and a southern conservative in Virginia, you have a pretty good chance in the primary of winning,” said Gingrich, who was born in Pennsylvania, represented Georgia in the U.S. House and resides in McLean, Va.
Polls have shown Gingrich’s late-year surge flagging less than two weeks before voting begins with the Iowa caucuses. A Dec. 19 CNN national poll found Romney and Gingrich tied with 28 percent support.
Gingrich has continued to project confidence on the campaign trail. On Dec. 1, he declared he would be the Republican nominee and on Dec. 12 in New Hampshire, he said he was “by a big margin, the front-runner.”
Almost every national public opinion poll conducted during the first week of December showed Gingrich leading the Republican pack with a double-digit margin over Romney.
Gingrich’s advantage in Iowa has diminished or vanished, according to surveys in the state. While he held a double-digit lead over Paul and Romney in a CBS-New York Times poll conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 5, he ranked second behind Paul in an Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll taken Dec. 8-18.
Gingrich has been bombarded by ads in Iowa from Romney’s backers and Paul’s campaign criticizing his record and character.
More Than $2.5 Million
The pro-Romney Restore Our Future political committee has spent more than $2.5 million on ads and direct mail against Gingrich, Federal Election Commission records show. In its latest television commercial, the group says Gingrich has “too much baggage.” It cited the $1.6 million in consulting fees he got from government-sponsored mortgage giant Freddie Mac, his 1997 ethics reprimand by the U.S. House and charges, which Gingrich dismissed as false, that he backed using federal funds for abortions.
Gingrich has called on Romney to stop the ads and challenged him Wednesday to explain them in a one-on-one debate. Romney rejected the challenge Thursday in an interview in New Hampshire with The Associated Press.
“There’s no question it has an impact, so we have to now overcome that impact,” Gingrich said today of the commercials.
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