A nationally broadcast debate in Iowa today will offer the latest chance for the Republican presidential race to be reshaped, as the contest intensifies with more advertising and criticism among rival camps.
Tonight’s debate, sponsored by ABC News and the Des Moines Register at Drake University in Des Moines, is the first to be held since the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich in polls.
On the eve of the gathering, Mitt Romney left most of his attacks against Gingrich to campaign surrogates and advertising.
“He and I have differences on some issues,” Romney told reporters yesterday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We’ll talk about those differences, and I think in the final analysis the American people will decide who can best lead our country at such a critical time.”
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia, has emerged as Romney’s leading challenger for the nomination less than a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses start the party’s nomination contests.
Asked if Gingrich, 68, is qualified to be president, Romney said any of the Republican candidates would do a “better job than the current president.”
Romney’s comments followed the release of a web video by a political action committee supporting him that suggests Gingrich has a “ton of baggage” as a presidential candidate. The video was put forward by the group Restore Our Future, which said it plans to spend $3.1 million on advertising in Iowa.
“I don’t have any comment on anything that PACs are going to do or say,” Romney told reporters.
‘Friends Like Newt’
Romney advisers criticized Gingrich as “off message” and undisciplined in a call yesterday with reporters.
Mary Kramer, an Iowa supporter and a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados, pointed to comments the former speaker made yesterday in an interview with the Jewish Channel that characterized Palestinians as an “invented people” as he called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “delusional.”
“That’s one of the things that I think makes me a little bit nervous about Speaker Gingrich,” she said. “He sometimes makes comments that are open to very broad interpretations.”
Iowa State Representative Renee Schulte pointed to Gingrich’s history of divorce as presenting “a contrast” with Romney’s 42-year marriage. “It’s not that anybody is trying to attack anybody; it’s just a difference,” she said.
Gingrich fired back, dispatching two top Iowa supporters to chide Romney and his campaign headquarters in Boston for taking a more combative tone.
‘Desperation and Panic’
“What we’re seeing from Mitt Romney and Boston is desperation and panic,” Linda Upmeyer, chairwoman of Gingrich’s Iowa campaign effort, told reporters in a conference call.
Former U.S. Representative Greg Ganske said the strategy would backfire on Romney.
‘If you can’t establish yourself first, and then you go negative on your opponent, it really brings your own negatives sky-high,” he said.
Romney’s campaign yesterday released an online video, “With Friends Like Newt,” that reminds Republican voters of the criticism the former speaker offered in May of a House Republican plan that was put forward by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
Romney, 64, made note of the Ryan plan during a campaign event with about 150 people inside an animal feed manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids.
Disagreement With Gingrich
“This is a place where Speaker Gingrich and I disagree,” he said. “He called this ‘right-wing social engineering.’ I believe it is a very important step. To protect Medicare and to protect Social Security, we’re going to have to make changes like the ones Paul Ryan proposed.”
Asked about his views on immigration policy, Romney also pointed out differences with Gingrich, who said in a Nov. 22 debate that he supports allowing some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. years ago and have raised families and pay taxes to legally remain in the country.
“We’re not going to go across the country and round people up,” Romney said, adding that he would “give people the chance to transition, to be able to go home to get in line” and become legal U.S. citizens.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential candidate, has campaigned as an heir apparent to the nomination for much of the year, mostly avoiding attacks on his opponents during debates and at campaign events as he has kept his fire focused on President Barack Obama.
As Gingrich has gained polling advantages in states with the earliest primaries and caucuses and in national polls, that tone has changed.
Romney’s campaign deployed former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and former Missouri Senator Jim Talent on Dec. 8 to hold a media conference call in which they portrayed Gingrich as a politician whose efforts at self-promotion frequently undermine his party’s agenda.
Asked by a reporter whether he stood by those remarks, Romney said they were out of his control.
“The people who have worked with Speaker Gingrich have their own views and they’ll express those views,” he said. “My views are going to focus on the distinctions we have on issues. As for comments of other folks who are supporting me, I don’t write those scripts for them.”
In a meeting with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, Texas Governor Rick Perry was tripped up by the name of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, calling her “Montemayor.” He also said there are eight instead of nine justices, before later correcting himself in the interview.
Similar gaffes have plagued Perry in debates and other public appearances.
Romney told the Iowa voters he spoke to that he is best prepared to debate Obama in a general election.
“I’ve had some pretty good zingers in the debates,” he said. “I understand the economy, not just as an academic, not just as a politician, but as someone who has worked in the economy for 25 years or more.”
Later in his own meeting with the Register’s editorial board, Romney noted his business experience as he contrasted himself with Gingrich.
“Speaker Gingrich has spent the last 30, 40 years in Washington,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s just different.”
Unconcerned on Polls
Romney told the newspaper that he isn’t concerned about Gingrich’s rise in the polls.
“My guess is that over time, Speaker Gingrich will follow a trajectory that will be unique to him but that will come down, and by the time we’ll finish with this, I’ll get the nomination,” he said. “If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be battling like I am. I expect to get the nomination.”
Gingrich had the support of 25 percent of likely caucus participants in the latest Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was next with 18 percent, followed by Romney at 16 percent. Sixty percent of poll participants said they could change their minds, while 11 percent said they are undecided.
Romney’s campaign stop yesterday represented his sixth visit to Iowa this year. He has ramped up his efforts in the state in recent weeks, after taking a below-the-radar approach to the state for much of the year.
“As we get closer to the caucus time, you’re going to see more of me, more of my family, more of our ads,” he told reporters.
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