WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney ramped up his campaign Thursday in Iowa — the first state to vote, on Jan. 3, in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign — a strategy that may be necessary now that Newt Gingrich poses a serious threat to Romney's White House bid.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, has charged into the lead in recent national polls and in three of the first four states to vote.
Unlike other Republican challengers whom Romney strategists regarded as too conservative or lacking the gravitas needed to beat the former Massachusetts governor's well-financed and well-organized campaign, Gingrich presents a potentially lethal challenge.
"Romney may be sufficiently concerned that Gingrich is showing enough strength that people will coalesce around him as the non-Romney candidate," said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
Romney, who's failed for months to budge from his mid-20s-percent showing in national polls, unveiled his first Iowa TV ad Thursday, a positive-toned 30-second spiel that touts his private-sector background and eagerness for tough federal fiscal discipline.
"We're going to have to cut spending. And I'm in favor of cutting spending, capping federal spending as a percentage of GDP at 20 percent or less, and having a balanced budget amendment," Romney says.
The ad signals the start of a new push by Romney roughly a month before Iowa Republicans caucus, and it represents a risk in the state.
"For Romney, the best of all worlds is doing very little and coming in first or a close second," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines.
For months, that appeared to be Romney's strategy. Iowa Republicans are dominated by conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians, who've been unable to rally around a single candidate. Romney largely has stayed away from Iowa, and he didn't compete in the Aug. 13 straw poll, which Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won.
As long as the conservatives' field was fractured, Romney backers figured he could get enough support to do well — and then move on to New Hampshire. That state, where Romney has a home in Wolfeboro and has spent much of his campaign time this year, holds the nation's first primary a week after the Iowa caucuses.
Until a few weeks ago, Romney's strategy seemed to be working. The Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, taken Oct. 23-29, had him in a virtual tie with businessman Herman Cain, who's since been rocked by scandal.
Gingrich, though, is gaining momentum, topping Romney in recent national polls by Gallup, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and Opinion Research Corp.
On Sunday, the influential newspaper New Hampshire Union Leader endorsed Gingrich. And he's pulled ahead in state polls conducted this week by InsiderAdvantage, a conservative political-consulting firm, in South Carolina, Iowa and Florida. The firm is headed by Matt Towery, who's been close to Gingrich for years.
Towery said Thursday that the company had no ties to the Gingrich campaign. "We've been polling for several months, and until the last three days we didn't have one poll that had him leading in a single state," Towery said. "We're good friends, but he knows I'd never do anything with polling to compromise my firm's integrity."
If Romney won Iowa or simply topped Gingrich, "it would have an effect on Florida. It would be important that Romney showed some momentum," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University.
Romney's forces aren't publicly discussing their strategy.
"Mitt Romney has always said that he would campaign and compete in Iowa," campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
The renewed focus on Iowa, which is expected to include a visit there next week by Romney backer New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is also an effort to remind voters that Romney wants their support — and a signal to his backers to spread the word about Gingrich's weaknesses.
Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Arthur Neu is considering voting for Romney, "but Gingrich is fairly strong here."
Neu, like others, has some serious questions about Gingrich. Romney's ad stays away from raising those questions, but Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's campaign has posted a YouTube video blasting Gingrich as a "serial hypocrite."
Gingrich has come under fire for, among other things, the $1.6 million that his consulting company, The Gingrich Group, received from embattled mortgage titan Freddie Mac. He said the payment was for "advice as a historian."
That's the kind of controversy the Romney people are hoping that voters will remember. As Neu, a moderate Republican, put it about Gingrich: "I don't think you can trust him."
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