WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's above-the-fray campaign style kept him atop the Republican presidential field for months, but it's raising concerns among his supporters now that Newt Gingrich has moved up to challenge him.
Some Romney backers say their candidate must mix it up more aggressively, with Gingrich and with reporters, to prove he has the moxie to be the GOP challenger to President Barack Obama.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, caused concern particularly with his prickly responses in a recent Fox News interview. He needs to show more toughness and readiness, party insiders say, a message that seemed to resonate with his campaign Tuesday.
"The lack of engagement strategy has served Romney pretty well," said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist and former Gingrich aide who is neutral in the current race. "Now I think they've got to alter course and get him out there more."
Numerous Romney supporters have expressed concern over reports of his dodging reporters and in-depth questioning.
"It remains a mystery why Mitt Romney has done relatively few interviews," writes Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for The Washington Post who often praises Romney. The much-discussed Fox interview, she said, might have gone better "had it been one of dozens of TV interviews he'd given during the campaign . . . He's been the least interviewed candidate in the race."
In his 15-minute exchange with Fox News' Brett Baier on Nov. 29, Romney bristled at questions about his changed views on abortion, climate change, immigration, and gay rights, all of which are widely discussed in political circles.
Romney acknowledged rejecting his pro-abortion-rights stand of the 1990s, although he did not explain why. Otherwise, he told Baier, "Your list is just not accurate." Romney suggested that the questions were inspired by "Democratic ads" that label him a serial flip-flopper.
Asked about his Massachusetts health initiative, which required residents to obtain medical insurance, Romney said he had answered the question "many hundred times." He added: "This is an unusual interview."
The questions were typical of those that many mainstream news organizations would ask, with no surprises or oddball queries. Except for Fox, which has several conservative hosts and is a favorite stop for GOP candidates, Romney rarely gives extended interviews to TV networks or national newspapers and news magazines.
The last time he appeared on a major Sunday morning talk show, a mainstay of political discourse, was March 2010. After extensive criticism, Romney agreed Tuesday to appear Dec. 18 on Fox News Sunday.
Campaigning Saturday in Manchester, N.H., Romney took a handful of questions from reporters in the morning and again shortly after noon. His only one-on-one interviews, which give reporters a chance to ask follow-up questions, were with Fox News and a TV station from Derry, N.H.
When reporters invited Romney to criticize Gingrich, he responded in measured tones. Some supporters say it's time to hit harder.
Danny Diaz, a GOP consultant uninvolved in the presidential race, said sharper exchanges are inevitable as "a natural progression" as the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus nears. But it's too early to say Romney must attack Gingrich or risk losing the nomination, Diaz said.
Some party veterans urge Romney to be cautious. Bitter quarrels between politicians are "what people are sick and tired of," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. "It would be disappointing if he all the sudden lit in to Gingrich, and if Gingrich lit into Romney."
LaTourette said he is backing Romney, partly because he has a "hangover" from Gingrich's tumultuous days as House speaker in the mid-1990s. "Everything always seemed to be on fire," he said.
Republican consultant Terry Holt also urged Romney to proceed carefully.
"It's important to protect your candidate's reputation and image," he said. Romney has a statesmanlike image, Holt said, and "I'd be very hesitant to sacrifice that with so much time on the clock."
As for interview programs in general, even some Democrats sympathize with Romney's reluctance.
"It's a half hour or 15 minutes of gotcha questions," said Chris Lehane, who helped Al Gore deal with the media in the 2000 presidential campaign. But that doesn't mean a serious candidate can skip such shows, or comparable interviews with major newspapers or magazines, Lehane said.
"You have to find a happy balance," he said, between protecting the candidate from gaffes and convincing voters that the contender is smart, prepared and capable.
If a candidate skips tough questions or handles them badly, Lehane said, voters will ask, "How are you going to deal with some significant crisis? These are fairly easy things compared to what you'll face as president."
Veteran GOP strategist and lobbyist Charlie Black said, "Everybody has a bad interview now and then."
"I don't know what happened," he said of Romney's Nov. 29 interview. "Maybe something put him in a bad mood before he walked in."
All in all, Black said, Romney's team has done a good job of limiting his exposure to national interviews, which sometimes do more harm than good, while focusing on local media in key states.
Democrats happily distribute anecdotes about Romney's evading journalists. They include a New York Times account of his being the only candidate expressing alarm at a reporter's presence backstage at a GOP forum in New York.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said her candidate "has done thousands of interviews over the course of his career, and he'll do a lot more." He exposes himself to questions in town hall settings, televised debates and numerous videotaped interviews with newspaper editorial boards, Saul said.
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