DES MOINES, Iowa — With his carefully organized campaign suddenly facing a serious threat from Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney on Thursday launched a strong offensive aimed at toppling the new Iowa front-runner by recalling Gingrich's controversial past.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, is "more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles," said former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney backer.
Added former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, Gingrich is "running as a reliable and trusted conservative leader. What we're here to say, with reluctance, but clearly he's not a reliable, trusted and conservative leader because he's not a reliable and trustworthy leader."
The two backers of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, spoke with reporters on a conference call organized by the Romney campaign.
At the same time, Romney began running a 30-second TV ad in Iowa and New Hampshire that discreetly contrasts him with Gingrich, who's been married three times and had extramarital affairs.
"I think people understand that Im a man of steadiness and constancy. I dont think youre going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do," Romney says. Ive been married to the same woman for 25 _ excuse me, Ill get in trouble _ for 42 years. Ive been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games.
"If Im president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country, and I will never apologize for the United States of America," he says.
The Gingrich campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The Gingrich-bashing came as a new Quinnipiac University poll in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania showed Gingrich with big leads over Romney.
Romney also trails badly in Iowa, according to several polls, and has lost ground in New Hampshire, where his sizable lead has dwindled. Iowa holds the nation's first GOP presidential voting in caucuses on Jan. 3, and New Hampshire holds the first primary a week later.
The Romney anti-Gingrich offensive came in waves Thursday. First came the ad, then Romney's press staff sent out a statement titled "With Friends Like Newt, Who Needs the Left?" It included a list of Gingrich quotes questioning House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan.
Ryan, R-Wis., proposed changing Medicare, the government's health care system for seniors and some disabled, after 2021 so that people would get federal payments to help them buy private coverage. The House of Representatives approved Ryan's budget plan earlier this year, but Democrats who control the Senate won't let it go further.
In May, Gingrich said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Ryan plan for changing Medicare was "radical change" and "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich later softened those remarks somewhat, saying there were pieces of the Ryan plan he liked and some he did not.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, uses Gingrich's criticism of the Ryan plan in an attack TV ad running in Iowa that accuses Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy."
Now Romney has joined the fight.
Sununu and Talent were particularly miffed about Gingrich's criticism of Ryan, whose budget plan was hailed by conservatives as a bold blueprint for the federal budget.
"For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that has no other purpose than to make him sound a little smarter than the conservative Republican leadership, to undercut Paul Ryan, is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening," Sununu said.
The former speakers derogatory comments, the Romney backers said, were classic Gingrich. Talent, a House member in the 1990s when Gingrich was speaker, recalled how many Republicans wanted to oust him in 1997 and 1998.
"Yes, we got some things done, but we also reached a conclusion after four years we could not go on with him as our leader and keep accomplishing things," Talent said. "We were in a situation where you would get up every morning and see what the speaker said that day you would have to clean up in your own district."
Gingrich's propensity for controversy, said Sununu, who served President George H.W. Bush as chief of staff, is hardly what voters should want in the White House.
"The off-the-cuff comment that Gingrich throws out on occasion is a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking he goes through to deal with issues," Sununu said, "and that is not what you want in a commander in chief."
After the call, Sununu went on MSNBC and further criticized Gingrich. "All he cares about is Newt Gingrich," he said.
The Romney campaign promises more such calls.
Romney, who so far has not personally joined the anti-Gingrich fray, is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids on Friday.
The new Quinnipiac polls show Gingrich leading Romney by 18 percentage points in Florida, 18 in Ohio and 14 in Pennsylvania. But matched head to head against President Barack Obama, Romney runs slightly better than Gingrich in Florida and Pennsylvania, and the two tied in Ohio.
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