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, filmed a TV ad in Iowa on Thursday and 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 Iowa Republicans hope former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who emphasizes social conservative issues such as abortion and gay rights, can make a move. He has visited all 99 Iowa counties and aired radio commercials.
Other party insiders feel the person best poised to rise is Gingrich, the fiery Georgian who led the GOP's 1994 takeover of the House (after 40 years in the minority). He eventually lost his leadership post and left the House after clashing with President Bill Clinton over taxes and an unpopular government showdown.
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
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