Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Presidential candidates Jon Huntsman Jr. and Newt Gingrich talk with Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential debate.
WASHINGTON — Republican president hopeful Newt Gingrich doubled down on his criticism of federal judges and the Supreme Court on Sunday as chief rival Mitt Romney defended his record against likely Democratic attacks. With close to two weeks before GOP voters start choosing their nominee, Gingrich is courting the conservative primary voters he will need to win in Iowa and sustain his campaign against Romney, whose superior organization and pile of cash has him seeming ever more confident as he looks ahead to the general election.
"There is steady encroachment of secularism through the courts to redefine America as a nonreligious country and the encroachment of the courts on the president's commander-in-chief powers, which is enormously dangerous," Gingrich said on CBS's Face the Nation.
Polls in Iowa and nationally show Gingrich ahead of Romney in the race for the GOP nomination. Gingrich has acknowledged that Romney's repeated attacks have taken a toll on his campaign and is looking to stay at the top.
To do that, Gingrich is focusing on ideology as he courts the Iowa conservatives he needs to win the caucuses and challenge Romney's well-organized campaign in what could become a drawn-out primary. He has mounted a broad attack on federal judges and the Supreme Court, arguing that they are legislating from the bench and have more control over the country than they should. It's an argument that drew sustained applause during a debate last week in Sioux City, Iowa — and one that could have particular resonance in a state where Republicans fought a protracted battle with state Supreme Court judges over gay marriage.
"The Manchester Union Leader which is a reliably conservative newspaper endorsed me and the Des Moines Register, which is a solidly liberal newspaper did not endorse me," Gingrich said Sunday. "I think that indicates who the conservative in this race is."
The Register, which typically has a left-leaning editorial board, endorsed Romney Saturday night.
The two Republican front-runners for the nomination focused on President Barack Obama and defending their own records in separate TV interviews. It was a shift from recent weeks where the two have attacked each other, trading accusations about each other's' records and the money each has made.
In a rare appearance on a Sunday news program, meanwhile, Romney portrayed himself as the GOP candidate who is best able to defeat Obama next year. Romney defended his years making millions in private business, claiming he'll be able to handle attacks from Democrats who are already trying to paint him as wealthy and out-of-touch. And he argued that his tax proposal is kinder to the middle class and less generous to the rich than the flat tax proposals his rivals — including Gingrich — are backing.
"The president's going to go after me," Romney said on Fox News Sunday. "I'll go after him."
Taken together, the pair has set up a choice for Republican primary voters between a candidate who has struggled to excite the conservative base but emphasizes his appeal to the independents the party will need to win the White House — or the candidate who sounds more conservative.
While Romney and Gingrich were on the East Coast on Sunday, their other rivals were campaigning across Iowa. Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued his bus tour across the state, as did Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum planned two town hall meetings in the conservative western portion of the state.
All were making last-ditch appeals to voters as the campaign for the caucuses enters its final weeks. As candidates met with caucusgoers, their campaigns — and their SuperPAC allies — were planning major ad offensives on TV. Gingrich's campaign is so far planning to spend about $14,000 on ads next week — while his rivals and their allies planned to spend more than $1.3 million promoting themselves or attacking him.
Campaigning will continue into next week, with Gingrich also planning to spend the early part of the week in Iowa. He'll head to New Hampshire Wednesday, where Romney will already be part way through a four-day bus tour. Romney won't return to Iowa until after Christmas.
His confidence increasing, Romney has stepped away from his aggressive attacks on Gingrich in recent days, instead shifting his focus back to Obama — and working to humanize himself on the campaign trail. That focus was on display in Sunday's interview, when Romney spoke emotionally about his wife's struggle with multiple sclerosis.
He said the "toughest time" in his life was standing in the doctor's office waiting for her diagnosis. He said he feared she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal degenerative nerve condition.
The doctor "did these neurological tests, and then he — and we could see that she had real balance problems and she didn't have feeling in places she should have feeling," Romney said. "And he stepped out of the room, and we stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, 'As long as it's not something fatal, I'm just fine. Look, I'm happy in life as long as I've got my soul mate with me.'"
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After her diagnosis, Ann Romney was concerned that she wouldn't be able to do things that she had in the past. "And I said, 'Look, I don't care what the meals are like, you know, I like cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches,'" Romney said. "We could do fine with that as long as we have each other. And if you think about what makes a difference to you in your life, it's people. Life is all about the people you love."
Gingrich, meanwhile, was relaxed and jovial in his CBS interview with Bob Schieffer. He acknowledged his comeback has exceeded even his own expectations. Earlier this year top campaign aides and consultants resigned en masse and his White House bid was burdened with deep debt.