Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to take the high road Friday while his allies attacked Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker now leading in early-voting Iowa and in national polls.
Romney was pressed to weigh in himself, after allies started airing a TV attack ad and campaign surrogates called Gingrich untrustworthy and self-serving. The former Massachusetts governor's campaign had arranged a conference call Thursday in which former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent attacked Gingrich.
"I can't write a script for Gov. Sununu or anybody else," Romney told reporters after speaking to about 150 people at a Cedar Rapids grain product plant. "I can tell you that the people who have worked for Speaker Gingrich have their own views, and they'll express their views. My views are to focus on the distinctions we have on issues."
Romney mildly criticized Gingrich over a disagreement on Medicare changes proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. "This is a place where Speaker Gingrich and I disagree," Romney said.
Gingrich had dismissed the Medicare plan by Ryan, who is popular among party conservatives, as "right-wing social engineering." Romney has been favorable toward the plan, which would change Medicare from an insurance program to a voucher program.
But Romney was careful not to attack Gingrich himself, passing up an opportunity during Q-and-A at the plant to criticize Gingrich on immigration, an issue over which the two candidates have sparred in recent weeks.
Romney's gentle tone on Friday contrasts sharply with the quickly escalating tenor of the GOP nominating campaign, which has boiled down to a race between him and Gingrich. Romney now trails Gingrich in national polls less than a month before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.
Romney is working to keep expectations low in Iowa, where he faces daunting skepticism from conservative caucus goers because of his Mormon faith and reversals on cultural issues. Mindful of that, his team is focusing less on Romney winning the state and more on taking the shine off the fast-rising Gingrich.
The increased aggression toward Gingrich, who has led by increasing margins in Iowa while Romney's support there has slipped, give the impression of worry on Romney's part, Gingrich's Iowa campaign chairwoman Linda Upmeyer said.
"It is desperate. It looks like a panic attack ..." said Upmeyer, majority leader in the Iowa House, said. The Gingrich campaign planned a conference call later Friday to criticize Romney with Upmeyer and another campaign surrogate, former Iowa Rep. Greg Ganske.
Until last week, Romney had spent only $200,000 in the state this year, a day-and-night comparison to the $10 million campaign he waged for a disappointing second-place finish in the 2008 caucuses.
Romney's plan for next year's caucuses was to maintain support with past backers, build support among niche groups such as business leaders and seniors, and come on strong in the end with advertising and stepped-up appearances.
Romney began airing his first Iowa ad of the campaign last week, a positive spot about his budget proposal. "We are staying the course and will continue to draw distinctions between us and Speaker Gingrich," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.
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But Iowans may get a different impression when they see the TV commercials attacking Gingrich by the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future, which raps Gingrich for past ethics violations and other liabilities. The spots are part of a $3.1 million ad campaign.
"The fact of the matter is, expectations are higher for Romney than they were," said David Roederer, who ran the Iowa caucus campaign for GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. "Good luck telling people $3 million in advertising doesn't raise expectations."