DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's surprise rise has disrupted rival Mitt Romney's carefully laid plan to lower expectations in Iowa, where Romney fought aggressively in 2008 but ended up losing.
Now Romney has been all but forced to try to derail Gingrich, the GOP's leader nationally and statewide — and in doing so has made the outcome of the Iowa caucuses more important to the Romney campaign than he had wanted.
Mindful of the dilemma, his team is trying to find a middle way, aided by millions of dollars in television advertising by a political action committee that supports his bid to become the GOP presidential nominee.
With only three weeks until the Jan. 3 caucuses and Gingrich well ahead in Iowa polls, time is running out for Romney or his allies to influence the outcome.
"It's a real problem," said Doug Gross, who was Romney's 2008 Iowa campaign chairman but is unaffiliated with any 2012 candidates. "All he's doing now is raising the stakes for himself in Iowa."
After spending $10 million only to finish second in the state four years ago, Romney has waged a leaner campaign here for 2012. He has focused on keeping former supporters and hasn't campaigned all-out for Iowa's influential evangelical conservatives, who are wary of Romney's Mormon faith and his changed positions on key cultural issues.
Romney had hoped a well-timed late Iowa burst at little cost to his campaign could boost him heading into next-up New Hampshire, where he faces high expectations in the state's pivotal primary Jan. 10.
Romney has held together a statewide organization since 2008, despite making only six trips to Iowa this year. Gingrich trails in organizing after a near-collapse of his campaign last summer.
But Gingrich has leaped past Romney in the polls in Iowa in the past two weeks. He also has narrowed Romney's lead in New Hampshire, putting pressure on Romney to slow Gingrich first in Iowa.
Despite Romney's attempt to protect himself in Iowa, a Gingrich win will boost his momentum going into New Hampshire and hurt Romney, said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist.
"It solidifies a two-man race and the necessity for Romney to win New Hampshire," Dyke said.
Romney, now airing ads in Iowa, can try to chisel away at Gingrich's lead — aided by the attacks Gingrich faces from others in the race, particularly Texas Rep. Ron Paul — in hopes of reducing any bounce Gingrich could get heading into New Hampshire.
Romney started down that path in earnest last week.
While stepping up his campaign appearances in Iowa, Romney has almost overnight pivoted from critiquing President Barack Obama to focusing more on contrasting his background as a former private sector executive with Gingrich's decades as a congressional leader and Washington-based consultant.
Meeting with The Des Moines Register's editorial board last Friday, Romney said he stood by the assessments, including sharp criticisms leveled by former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. During the meeting with reporters and editors of Iowa's largest newspaper, Romney also questioned Gingrich's judgment, calling policies he has promoted, including mining minerals on the moon and lighting highways with mirrors from space, unwise.
During Saturday's nationally televised debate in Des Moines, Romney criticized Gingrich's temperament by equating his recent description of the Palestinians as an "invented" people with throwing "incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot."
Romney aides say they have not adjusted their Iowa strategy and note that the campaign conducted telephone conference calls there last month to draw attention to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's positions related to illegal immigration.
"We are staying the course and will continue to draw distinctions between us and Speaker Gingrich," said Gail Gitcho, Romney's communications director.
Romney began airing an ad last week portraying him as a devoted family man, an indirect poke at Gingrich, who has admitted to marital infidelity and is on his third marriage.
Romney has not ruled out attack ads in early states, although campaign aides declined to say whether any were being planned.
"But we may. This is, after all, politics. There's no whining in politics. You get in a political process and you fight hard and describe the differences between yourself and other candidates," Romney told reporters Monday during an appearance in Manchester, N.H.
Until he does uncork attack ads, Romney has the help in Iowa of $3.1 million in advertising from Restore Our Future, a super PAC organized by former top aides.
The ads, especially a bruising attack spot on Gingrich's ethics violations in Congress, give the impression that Iowa is more important to Romney than he has let on all year, said David Roederer, who ran Republican John McCain's 2008 Iowa caucus campaign.
"Something has changed, and the fact of the matter is expectations are higher for Romney than they were," said Roederer, who is unaffiliated with any of the 2012 campaigns. "Good luck telling people $3 million in advertising doesn't raise expectations."