All that opens the way for Romney to employ a strategy he used as other, more conservative alternatives to him have risen and fallen over the past six months. As in those cases, Romney's campaign expects the media to shine a light on Gingrich's long record. The campaign also has spent much of the year compiling research to criticize rivals who rise to challenge him — and never stopped plotting for Gingrich despite the former speaker's summer problems.
Romney allies say his campaign started picking up early on Gingrich's surge by noting he was frequently the second choice among Republicans who preferred a different conservative candidate to the former Massachusetts governor.
Either by coincidence or by design, other candidates also have started helping Romney.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning candidate with a big bank account, rolled out a blistering online video this week — that may eventually end up on TV — accusing Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy." The spot showed Gingrich alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic boogeyman to Republicans.
But time is not on Romney's side as it was when other rivals — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain among them — enjoyed bursts of momentum only to fall after missteps.
Until now, Romney's biggest challenge this year had come from Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He entered the race in August, months after signaling he probably would run. That gave Romney's campaign plenty of time to prepare. When Perry immediately rose to the top of polls, Romney castigated him as a career politician, much as he's doing with Gingrich now. If that didn't work, Romney still had four months before the Iowa caucuses to try to take Perry down. It helped that Perry was unknown to much of the primary electorate, so Romney could help define him in voters' minds.
Perry ended up fading without Romney having to seriously engage for much more than week.
But only four weeks remain before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, and Gingrich, who has risen steadily in polls nationally and in early voting states, already is known nationally. That will make it much more difficult for Romney to define him.
Still, Romney is counting on his superior campaign organization, which is designed to keep him in the race for the long haul by winning significant numbers of key convention delegates even if he loses in a particular state.
As Romney faces more scrutiny in the coming weeks, one of his main challenges will be to keep his well-known defensiveness in check.
For the better part of a year, his campaign has executed a steady strategy vastly different from his reactive, aggressive and unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid. So far, Romney has been able to watch his rivals cut each other down on the debate stage and elsewhere, while he has barely been forced to defend himself. He kept his cool as one conservative rival after another rose to potentially challenge his long-held position as the GOP field's most plausible nominee.
But there are signs that Romney's temper may be rising along with the pressure of waging two political fights.
In a Fox News interview this week, anchor Bret Baier pressed Romney on being on both sides of issues, including climate change, immigration, abortion and gay rights. And Romney appeared irritated, telling Baier: "Your list is just not accurate. So, one, we're going to have to be better informed about my views on issues."
The coming weeks will tell whether Romney can withstand the scrutiny — and wage two fights at once.
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