Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican Mitt Romney opened a broad and newly abrasive assault on rival Newt Gingrich on Thursday, dispatching surrogates and staff to cast him as unworthy of the GOP nomination and unfit to be president.
Romney is aiming to undermine his rising rival on both personal and professional fronts ahead of the 2012 campaign's opening contest Jan. 3 in Iowa — a reversal by the one-time front-runner who had previously all but ignored his Republican foes.
"He's not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he's not a reliable or trustworthy leader," former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney supporter, said of Gingrich, offering a preview of the attacks Romney's team promised would continue in the next few weeks.
Romney allies also were giving him a boost, announcing a $3.1 million TV ad campaign in Iowa that is expected to include hard-hitting commercials against Gingrich.
Campaigning in South Carolina, Gingrich brushed off the verbal assault and insisted his campaign would not change its above-the-fray approach regarding fellow Republican contenders.
"We're focused on remaining positive," he said.
Gingrich's reluctance to engage may be out of necessity. He dramatically lags Romney in organizational firepower as he tries to rebuild his campaign after an early summer implosion that left it deep in debt.
The onslaught of criticism from Romney and his allies, after months of focusing solely on President Barack Obama and little on his GOP foes, comes as the race has developed into a two-person contest. Gingrich's quick rise in national and early-state polls threatens Romney's claim as the likeliest Republican to be chosen to challenge Obama next fall.
Romney's attack strategy carries risks.
If he's successful in tearing down his main rival, there's no guarantee that in a multi-candidate field he'll end up benefiting from a possible Gingrich fall. At the same time, congenial Iowa voters generally don't look kindly on candidates who engage in negative politics, and they could end up punishing Romney in a state that already presents hurdles for him. Plus, questioning Gingrich's adherence to conservatism could draw attention to Romney's own liabilities as having switched positions on key social issues including abortion and gay marriage.
The candidate, himself, personally stayed out of the fray Thursday, raising money in private in Virginia.
But he's all but certain to weigh in with a sharp critique of Gingrich when he campaigns Friday in Iowa. His efforts there seemingly have boosted the importance of a state where Romney had worked to downplay expectations. Romney also is expected to clash with Gingrich during a nationally televised debate in Des Moines Saturday night.
TV ads against Gingrich are all but assured — either paid for by Romney's campaign or by the Restore Our Future political action committee, which is made up of staffers from Romney's failed 2008 presidential bid.
The group announced Monday that it was running a 30-second ad in Iowa that emphasizes Romney's private-sector experiences while castigating Obama's community organizing and academic background. A spot blistering Gingrich was in the works.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, struggling to spark enthusiasm anew in his campaign, also unveiled a television ad planned for airing in Iowa assailing both Romney and Gingrich for their past support for an individual health care mandate, a provision at the heart of GOP opposition to the 2010 law Obama signed. It's the first attack ad by Perry, who has spent more than $2 million on advertising in Iowa to little avail.
But Romney was the one dictating the direction of the race Thursday.
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