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.
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.