Just 20 days before the Iowa caucus begins Mitt Romney came out swinging at front-runner Newt Gingrich, saying “Zany is not what we need in a president.”
“Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in print, it makes for fun reading,” Mr. Romney told The New York Times. “But in terms of a president, we need a leader, and a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together.”
Romney, whose staid and media-shy campaign has left him with a shrinking lead, decided he had to attack the surging Gingrich's credibility. To do so he's been forced out of his comfort zone and started granting interviews in hopes of changing the narrative surrounding his candidacy – which has thus far failed to inspire a GOP base looking for a candidate to inspire them.
But instead of trying to present his own ideas in a more appealing light, Romney grinned into the cameras and turned his campaign negative, saying Gingrich was "ill-suited in belief and temperament" to lead America.
“He’s a great historian,” Mr. Romney said in the classic politician’s move of offering hollow-praise as a prelude to attack. “If we need a historian leading the country, I’m sure people would find that attractive. I actually think you need someone who actually understands the economy leading the country.”
“I hope to be able to win in the early states,” Mr. Romney told the Times. “I’d like to win Iowa, I’d like to win New Hampshire."
“But if a candidate didn’t win in either one, let’s say one of the people in this contest — Rick Santorum, you know — didn’t win either one, do you write him off? No, you say, you know, in this process, people have jumped up in the polls, gotten support, you recognize people are not out until they’ve actually closed the doors and turned off the lights.”
Even while launching salvos at his rival, Romney claimed his strategy of "holding back" throughout the year would be justified in the end.
“People are taking a closer look at Speaker Gingrich,” Mr. Romney said. “And like other people who bumped up in the polls in this last year, as they take a closer look, some are happy with what they see and some would like to see something else and recognize that he may not be exactly what they wanted.”
But former House Speaker Gingrich is riding high and has endured far worse attacks in his long, often controversial career. Nor has he made any bones about being a loose-cannon with a flair for incendiary rhetoric -- which has won him 9 of the last 10 polls.
Instead he's continued to hammer away on his positions and charged the atmosphere with quotable, base-grabbing sound bites, knowing the Democrats, monomaniacally focused on Romney, are doing his dirty work for him.
The steady tide of the partisan assaults from the DNC has gone on for months and hobbled Romney. It started when Romney was the default front-runner and continued as one GOP candidate after another challenged or eclipsed him briefly in polls before crashing into single digits.
But despite his consistent numbers, the donation-heavy Romney has been unable to exceed 25 percent, which has allowed more conservative candidates to muster their challenges.
Ben Clarke, senior vice president of Luntz Global, a Republican-oriented polling firm, told the Boston Globe “At this point, Mitt Romney needs a Ronald Reagan moment. He needs to grab the microphone and say with palpable passion why he is the right candidate.’’
Gingrich – seemingly confident the staid Romney will never have such a moment – has sought to remain above the fray while chiding his opponents for going negative.
"These are challenging and important times for America. We want and deserve solutions," Gingrich said in the ad running in Iowa. "Others seem to be more focused on attacks rather than moving the country forward. That's up to them."
For the colorful Gingrich the key to victory isn't endurance, but timing. Surging late, all he needs is three headline-grabbing weeks. If Gingrich can ride his surge into the final GOP debate and the Iowa caucus, he becomes the odds-on favorite.