WASHINGTON — With the Iowa caucus nearing and Newt Gingrich surging, Mitt Romney's campaign strategies appear to be flagging in the Republican presidential race. He's starting to adjust.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds that Republicans aren't buying Romney's chief argument: that his private-sector, outside-Washington background makes him a better candidate than does Gingrich's three decades in the capital. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, also has been unable to persuade Republicans he's more conservative than Gingrich.
Romney and his aides are beginning to revamp. They know they have limited time to get voters' attention before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.
In recent days, Romney's campaign has highlighted Gingrich's departures from conservative paths, subjected their own candidate to wider media scrutiny and emphasized the less-flattering aspects of Gingrich's Washington experience.
In essence, Romney is saying Gingrich has the wrong kind of Washington experience: cutting unwise deals with Democrats, letting power go to his head and cashing in on his name and contacts after leaving Congress. The revised strategy is playing out in TV ads, in emails and in comments by Romney and his surrogates.
For instance, Romney aides say they will make greater use of a 2008 video in which Gingrich appeared with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to discuss climate change. They also are employing GOP officials who worked with Gingrich in the mid-1990s to argue that he was an erratic and unreliable leader during his four years as House speaker.
They hope the tactic might reverse the trend in polls that show Gingrich ahead of Romney, nationally and in early voting states. The AP-GfK poll found Gingrich with an edge, but just within the margin of error.
"Gingrich is not nearly the conservative that everybody thinks he is," said Mike McKenna, a Republican lobbyist and strategist unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns. "He is surging because some chunk of the electorate sees him as the authentic conservative in the race. Romney doesn't need to prove he's the authentic conservative. He just has to cast doubt on whether it's Gingrich."
But Romney has trouble proving his own conservative credentials. During his time in Massachusetts, he supported legalized abortion, gun control and gay rights. He changed those positions before his first bid for president, in 2008. Romney says he was wrong not to sign Gingrich's 1994 Contract With America when he was running for a Senate seat.
Gingrich, 68, spent 20 years in the House, the last four as speaker after leading the Republican resurgence of 1994. He left Congress in 1998 under an ethics cloud, following sharp clashes with GOP colleagues. He then earned millions of dollars as a Washington-based consultant, speaker and writer. Like Romney, Gingrich has changed positions on some issues, including how to address climate change.
Romney allies say their candidate is not panicking. There is plenty of time for Gingrich to hurt himself through his propensity for hyperbolic and often boastful remarks, they say.
Also, the AP-GfK poll and other surveys of Republicans give Romney a clear edge on which contender has the best chance to beat President Barack Obama next year. Several advisers said Romney should let his friends or the news media make the "electability" argument for him, while he stays focused on Obama and the economy.
When candidates highlight their electability advantage, "the argument is solely about them," said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. "Romney represents the best chance to make this an election about the economy," he said. "If Newt Gingrich is the nominee, it's very likely this will be a campaign about Newt Gingrich."
Romney's revised strategy calls for pointedly questioning Gingrich's conservatism and highlighting the seamier aspects of his time in Washington. In doing so, Romney allies hope to provoke Gingrich into an outburst that will raise doubts about his stability or judgment.
Romney recently called on Gingrich to return the $1.6 million he made as a consultant to Freddie Mac, the quasi-government mortgage giant that many conservatives dislike. Gingrich in turn said Romney should give back the millions he made as head of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that sometimes laid off employees as it reorganized struggling businesses. To Romney's delight, some conservative commentators questioned Gingrich's faith in capitalism.
Romney and his allies also are reminding voters of Gingrich's criticism of a budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would make significant federal spending cuts, including some to Medicare.
Madden said Romney wants to cast the GOP election as one "between a candidate who sees the presidency as a professor's lectern and wants to teach a course on civilization," and a contender "who wants to fix the economy and move the country forward."
That might sound like a tepid insult to Gingrich. But Romney aides say the image of Gingrich as a college professor might remind voters of his penchant for provocative comments and ideas that play better in a classroom than in delicate negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders.