WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney chugged ahead Thursday as the conservative-fueled drive to deny him the Republican presidential nomination reached a difficult new phase: Once-surging rivals Rick Perry and Herman Cain scrambled to control serious damage, while an old face sought new ways to exploit their problems.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich could emerge as the newest hope for conservative activists who doubt Romney's commitment to their priorities. But Gingrich trails Romney and others in organizing in key states such as Iowa. And he will have to prove that his long and sometimes troubled political history can withstand closer scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Perry rearranged his schedule Thursday to try to mitigate a disastrous debate moment, in which he could not remember the third federal agency he has vowed to abolish. Perry canceled a Tennessee fundraiser to appear on several TV networks and the David Letterman show, pledging to stay in the race.
He repeatedly said he "stepped in it" at the Wednesday night debate but declared in an interview, "This ain't a day for quitting nothing."
For Cain, the former pizza company executive, it was day 11 of trying to get beyond sexual harassment accusations leveled against him by four women, two of whom received cash settlements from a trade association Cain once headed.
Facing voters for the first time since the allegations emerged, Cain met with tea party groups in Michigan, hoping the friendly settings would preserve the lofty perch he enjoyed in GOP polls two weeks ago.
"How you beat Obama? Beat him with a Cain!" he told one supporter at a crowded diner in Ypsilanti. The crowd cheered.
He is airing his first TV ad in Iowa, and he has hired a new lawyer who is warning women they will be scrutinized for any charges made against the candidate.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, stayed out of the public eye Thursday, although he blasted President Barack Obama's Iran policy in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. His supporters quietly reveled in the good fortune of Perry's and Cain's woes.
With the Iowa caucus set for Jan. 3, and the New Hampshire primary a week after that, Romney is looking strong, but he's hardly home free. Many conservatives still resent his past support of legalized abortion and gay rights, and his requirement that all Massachusetts residents obtain health insurance.
But they have failed to coalesce around a single alternative. Rep. Michele Bachmann briefly topped the polls, followed by Perry and then Cain. It's unclear whether Cain can hold his position.
Some Republican insiders feel the next opportunity falls to Gingrich, the fiery Georgian who led the party's 1994 takeover of the House (after 40 years in the minority), only to lose support in tax and budget showdowns with President Bill Clinton.
With Romney widely seen as the front-runner in New Hampshire, a rival must do well in Iowa to surpass him. Gingrich is popular with many Iowa Republicans, and he drew good reviews for his speech at a large dinner in Des Moines last week.
But he has little structure in place for the organizationally intensive caucuses, which require people to show up for gatherings on a mid-winter night. Gingrich has not done much of the retail-level campaigning seen by past successful caucus candidates. His schedule in the next 10 days shows him visiting the state to promote a movie he produced with his wife and participate in a multi-candidate event aimed at social conservative activists
Gingrich has had no paid staff in Iowa since a mass exodus of his campaign team in June. He plans to name a staff and open campaign headquarters in Iowa soon,
"What I'm seeing now is a real surge of energy" for Gingrich, said supporter Linda Upmeyer, Iowa's House majority leader. "The bright, shiny things have come and gone, and now people are focusing on a decision. Time is approaching, and we need to get busy. But the energy behind Newt is growing at the right time."
A key question is whether Romney will see Cain's and Perry's problems as a chance to make a big push in Iowa. A win there would make him the prohibitive favorite. But to fare poorly after raising expectations would echo his disappointing Iowa performance four years ago.
He has kept a low profile there so far this year, visiting the state only four times. But a small core of advisers and staff keeps in close touch with key elements of the Iowa network he assembled in 2007.
Romney's Iowa visits have been to counties he carried four years ago. He has phoned activists and held multiple question-and-answer conference calls that included thousands of potential voters.
The aim of the lower-profile campaign has been to suppress expectations, which got away from Romney four years ago as he waged a $10 million campaign only to lose to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sen. John McCain then won the New Hampshire primary, and eventually the nomination.
This year, Romney has been the most consistent poll leader in Iowa without pulling away. The Des Moines Register's late-October survey showed Romney with 22 percent, narrowly trailing Cain.
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Romney has a healthy contingent of precinct-level caucus leaders, an edge over many of his rivals. He has sponsored phone calls criticizing Perry's position on immigration. He plans more telephone town-hall meetings and is moving closer to airing advertisements for the campaign's closing weeks.
However, Romney has avoided multi-candidate forums in Iowa. He is not expected to participate in an event sponsored by a social conservative group in Des Moines on Nov. 19, or the evening fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad the same evening. Several other candidates are expected at both events.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Michigan, Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta and Phil Elliott and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report. Beaumont reported from Iowa.