Charles Krupa, Associated Press
SALEM, N.H. — Mitt Romney is a timid Massachusetts moderate, a flip-flopper on abortion and gun rights. As governor, he raised taxes and even tried to hike fees on the blind. He's also a liar full of "pious baloney" — according to Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker left his "positive campaign" strategy behind in the cornfields of Iowa, where Romney's allies smacked him with a series of negative ads that helped knock Gingrich out of contention in the state's leadoff caucuses. Now, his tone is growing sharper by the day as he assails Romney.
"He owes us a report on his stewardship" of Bain Capital, the Georgia Republican said Monday on NBC's "Today" show, demanding that chief rival Romney tell the public more about how he operated as a venture capitalist.
Plowing through New Hampshire before Tuesday's primary, Gingrich is indulging an innate sharp edge that has won him attention — and enemies — from his days as a back-bencher in the House in the 1980s. Now, as always, he risks nicking himself in the process.
"Gingrich is doing it the way you shouldn't, which is a mean, nasty, transparently negative attack on Mitt Romney," says Michael Dennehy, the political director for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago. "It comes across to everyone now. It helps Mitt Romney's opponents. It's not going to help him."
Some New Hampshire voters are pushing back.
At a health care event in Lebanon, an attendee, Peter Miller, lectured Gingrich for "conducting politics as if you were a suicide bomber engaged in hostage negotiation."
"I think that's a mythology," he replied.
Gingrich knows firsthand that attacks can be effective and risky. He made a career of attacking opponents personally, from House Speaker Jim Wright on down. Gingrich's rhetorical aggression also helped him lead the Republicans to the House majority in 1994. But Gingrich's style left him little goodwill among his own lieutenants. He was forced to resign as speaker after the 1998 GOP election losses.
As a presidential candidate in the 2012 election, he was bloodied in Iowa by millions of dollars in brutal television ads, many funded by a super PAC backing Romney. Once a front-runner in Iowa polls, Gingrich tumbled to a distant fourth-place finish in the state.
Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting Gingrich, has purchased $3.4 million in ad buys in South Carolina, according to Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who is helping lead the effort. The spots, in what is considered a critical state for the former Georgia congressman, are expected to go after Romney.
Contrasting records is fair game, Gingrich says, issuing a new pledge against slinging mud.
"I don't have the money and I will not engage in the kind of vicious negativity that, frankly, drove me down in Iowa," he said Friday night to an overflow crowd packed into a high-school cafeteria in Salem. "I'm going to fight honestly on the facts and draw the contrasts."
But Gingrich is famous for hyperbole and a lightning-fast response reflex that, deployed effectively, can knock a candidate as robust as Romney.
"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Gingrich shot across the debate stage last month, hitting a bull's-eye with his reference to Romney's unsuccessful Senate bid.
Other times, Gingrich's frankness can be harsh.
He has called Romney a "liar" and also said President Barack Obama would laugh at Romney if he were the nominee.
And during a pair of presidential debates over the weekend, Gingrich held little back.
He called Romney "a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even the Wall Street Journal said had an economic plan so timid it resembled Obama."
When Romney denied being a career politician, Gingrich chided him: "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?"
It's all left some in New Hampshire — where Romney is close to a hometown boy — scratching their heads.
"Is the purpose to destroy Romney? Very often this becomes a double-sided sword," said Phyllis Woods, New Hampshire's Republican national committeewoman, who also worries that Gingrich could be unintentionally helping Democrats.
"I think there is a danger that the negativity expressed by Newt Gingrich could work against him," she said. "But it's certainly not good for the party as a whole. I would hope people would count to 10 and take a deep breath."
There's a long and storied history of candidates in both parties ripping into each other during primary campaigns only to make up afterward.
Hillary Rodham Clinton regularly attacked Obama four years ago, calling him "a hypocrite," among other insults. Clinton, of course, is now the secretary of state in the Obama administration. Sen. John McCain assailed Romney in the hard-fought 2008 campaign but endorsed him this go-round.
And Sam Pimm, Gingrich's New Hampshire field operations director, said he's heard no complaints from residents.
"I think it's about time people heard the truth about Gov. Romney's record," he said.
But Gingrich's problem, other New Hampshire Republicans say, stems from his recent promise not to go negative.
"He was supposed to be the nice positive guy and framed himself that way," said Kevin Smith, a GOP candidate for New Hampshire governor. "It's only an issue because he seems to be going back on his word of running a positive campaign."
Follow Shannon McCaffrey on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/smccaffrey13
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