CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Mitt Romney faces daunting challenges in this, the first state to vote for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Foremost is the sudden widespread support for Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives. Romney's campaign is taking a good guy-bad guy approach, leaving attacks on Gingrich to surrogates while the candidate stays above the fray.
But Romney also has to overcome his image as someone too willing to change positions. His political problem is stark: Gingrich's poll numbers suggest he could score the kind of huge win in this state's Jan. 3 GOP caucuses that could give him enough momentum to threaten Romney's chances in New Hampshire on Jan. 10. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is counting heavily on a victory in that state's first-in-the-nation primary to give him a significant boost.
In light of the Gingrich surge, Romney is suddenly under intense pressure to make a decent showing in Iowa to preserve his own viability down the road. Romney "has to finish strong," said David Kochel, Romney's Iowa consultant.
Romney's campaign began taking on Gingrich this week. Restore Our Future, a political action group backing Romney, released a web ad blasting Gingrich as having "a ton of baggage."
Two prominent Romney supporters lashed out in a conference call with reporters on Thursday at Gingrich's erratic history and sometimes caustic demeanor. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu accused Gingrich of, among other things, "irrational behavior that you do not want in the commander in chief."
But Romney himself wouldn't comment on the accusation Friday. "I can't write a script for Gov. Sununu or anybody else," he said. Nor would he comment on the ad.
Instead, Romney stayed lofty during a visit to the Diamond V plant in Cedar Rapids, where workers make dietary supplements for animals and people.
Asked by reporters about Gingrich, Romney said that while they differed on a Medicare overhaul proposal, he could support any of his GOP rivals over President Barack Obama.
"Yes, they're all qualified, including Speaker Gingrich," Romney said.
During an hour-long question-and-answer session with voters, Romney took only one polite dig at Gingrich, citing the former speaker's comment in May that Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan was "right-wing social engineering."
Ryan, R-Wis., would change Medicare into a program of federal vouchers to subsidize purchase of private health services rather than the government-paid approach in place since 1965. Romney called Ryan's plan "a very important step to protect Medicare and Social Security. We're going to have to make changes like the one Paul Ryan proposed."
For his part, Gingrich canceled a planned book-signing-and-selling appearance Friday at a Washington train station bookstore, which cited "safety concerns" as the reason for the cancellation.
Romney, Gingrich and four other Republican presidential candidates will face each other for the first time this month at Saturday night's Des Moines debate. The two-hour debate, which ABC will televise, begins at 9 p.m. EST. They'll also debate Thursday on Fox News from 9 to 11 p.m. EST in Sioux City.
The debates will be crucial, said John Powers, a Cedar Rapids retiree.
"I'm just sizing up everything. The big thing I'm waiting for is that debate tomorrow," he said.
Until this month, Romney had been waging a quiet campaign in Iowa, with few appearances. Whoever won these caucuses, the thinking went, would get crushed by Romney in New Hampshire and lack the resources or breadth of support needed to compete in bigger states.
Then along came Gingrich, soaring to double-digit poll leads this month not only in Iowa, but in South Carolina and the must-win big states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Romney's begun fighting harder, but he has to overcome not only Gingrich, but his own image. When asked about Romney, many voters roll their eyes and shake their heads.
"I doubt I'll vote for him. There's just something about him," said Jeff Trier, a Des Moines financial adviser.
"He's a very good person, and he's run a business and done things like that," said Ray Frye, a Williams farmer. "But he just seems aloof."
Some conservatives cite other qualms.
They've long been suspicious of Romney's record as a center-right governor. They find him too willing to change his views to fit his audience, notably on health care; he signed the Massachusetts law requiring nearly everyone in that state to get insurance coverage. It's considered the model for the 2010 federal health care law that Republicans despise.
"I was for Romney last time, but health care bothers me," said Ken Smith, a Clive insurance marketer.
On Friday, Romney reiterated that "overall I like what we did for our state," but that each state should decide how to proceed on health insurance.
It's clear that Romney has strong pockets of support, notably among moderates and in the business and professional communities.
"People say he looks slick, but you can't change the way you look," said Margo Nahas, an Adel jewelry designer. "And people do change their minds. My husband was pro-choice, and now he's pro-life. I don't disrespect him. People get older and they mature."
Supporters also like Romney's perceived electability.
"I think he has a better chance to beat Obama. Gingrich has a lot of baggage," said Luann Steenhoek, a Cedar Rapids real estate agent.
But going negative in genteel Iowa is always a risk, and Romney's late effort rankles some Iowans, who wish he'd come sooner.
"All of 'em turn me off with that kind of negative stuff," said Powers, the Cedar Rapids retiree. "Address the real issues. They say they believe in America. Well, what are they going to do to make me believe in America?"
Romney's taking a gamble, said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican, a statewide newsletter and website.
"I think Romney has no choice but to attack Gingrich," he said. "The problem is that in doing so, he's probably going to help the other candidates competing in Iowa (more) than helping himself, because he's not been here.
"So it makes sense, but it's probably not going to help him, either."
ON THE WEB:
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011