Jim Cole, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Suddenly Mitt Romney is fighting a two-front political war.
The Republican presidential contender has skated along for much of the year as GOP challengers surged and faded. But now he faces an unexpected, more serious threat from Newt Gingrich — just as Barack Obama's team is sharpening its criticism of Romney, whom the president's aides view as his likeliest foe next fall.
With only a month before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nominating fight, Gingrich's rise has forced Romney's campaign to evaluate a new reality: He no longer has the luxury of staying above the Republican primary fray, avoiding tough questions about his own record and hammering Obama at will while essentially ignoring his GOP rivals.
Well aware of the new challenge, Romney has started fighting back against two opponents from opposite ends of the political spectrum — no easy feat — while also defending himself from continuing criticism of reversals, equivocations and shifts on a range of issues.
What does he have to say now about Gingrich?
"He's a lifelong politician," Romney declared this week, signaling his intention to go after the former House speaker and long-time Washington insider in hopes of knocking him off course. Romney also is set to air his first television commercials on Friday in Iowa, where polls show Gingrich and him locked in a tight race. It's another indication of how seriously Romney is taking the Georgian's rise.
Romney also has started subtly contrasting his character with Gingrich's once rocky private life. He said on Fox News that he's a person "who has devoted his life to his family, to his faith, to his country."
At the same time, Romney intends to keep the heat on Obama, convinced that his best chance at clinching the GOP nomination is to persuade Republican primary voters that he's the strongest candidate to take on the Democratic incumbent on their biggest issue, the economy, next fall.
Romney's response was swift when the Democratic National Committee rolled out TV ads this week attacking Romney for flip-flopping on a series of issues, including abortion and health care.
The Republican's team quickly organized conference calls with top supporters in about a dozen states — a demonstration of organizing power meant to serve as a warning to both Gingrich and Obama.
"They don't want to see me as the nominee, that's for sure," Romney chided in response to the ads. "It shows that they're awfully afraid of facing me in the general election. They want to throw the primary process to anybody but me, but bring it on. We're ready for them."
Obama's aides privately say they see Romney as the Republican most likely to win the party's nomination and they have been flummoxed that no GOP rival has gone after him aggressively. By stepping up the heat, the president's aides hope to bloody Romney so he emerges from the GOP fight as a damaged nominee. Or, in what many Democrats view as a less-likely scenario, the Republicans would pick a candidate who would be weaker in the general election.
Gingrich has advantages of his own, in the primary fight or a general election. He's universally known within the GOP with broad grassroots support, and he has a deep grasp of policy issues.
But he lacks any significant campaign organization after his staff resigned en masse in June. His fundraising dried up, and his campaign is still paying off debts from earlier this year. He also carries personal baggage — including two divorces and acknowledged infidelity — that could turn off conservative Republicans in Iowa, where voters will first choose among Romney, Gingrich and their rivals. And he has some political problems, having backed proposals now considered conservative apostasy such as an individual mandate for Americans to buy health insurance.
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