All along, everything has gone according to Mitt Romneyâ€™s plan. His strategists didnâ€™t believe that Tim Pawlenty would catch on. They were confident that Michele Bachmann would fade. They were prepared for Rick Perry. They never thought Herman Cain would pass the commander in chief test.
But they didnâ€™t count onÂ a late and strong rise by Newt Gingrich.
Once left for dead, the former House speaker has suddenly emerged as Romneyâ€™s most durable opponent yet â€” in part because he has performed well in the debates and, unlike the others, he is viewed by many in the Republican Party as a plausible president.
For this unexpected turn in what has been a steady and sure campaign, the Romney team has no road map. With just five weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor and his advisers are trying to figure out what to do. Will they stick to their tried-and-true playbook and hope Gingrich falls on his own, just like the others? Or will Romney engage Gingrich directly and aggressively, either through ads or in a pair of upcoming debates?
â€œIs there enough time for Gingrich to self-destruct on his own before Jan. 3, or do you have to help it along? Itâ€™s a tough call,â€ said a GOP strategist who informally advises Romneyâ€™s campaign and, like other advisers interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.
Romneyâ€™s strategists are gaming out scenarios. They say they understand the risk that, inÂ a multi-candidate field, any attack they make against Gingrich could boomerang to hurt Romney and help a third candidate.
Taking on Gingrich is â€œgoing to be a process,â€ one adviser said. â€œItâ€™s not going to be an overnight kind of a thing, unless he steps in it. But he seems less likely than the others to do that.â€
At a time when Romney intended to be showing momentum and closing the deal with voters, his campaign has been on the defensive. The candidate appeared rattled in aÂ Fox News interviewTuesday when he was pressed by host Bret Baier to explain his changing positions on some issues.
â€œBret, I donâ€™t know how many hundred times Iâ€™ve said this, too. This is an unusual interview,â€ a visibly agitated Romney said, as he wiggled in his seat, crossed his legs and forced a laugh. â€œHa, ha, ha, ha. Letâ€™s do it again.â€
In that same interview, Romney hinted that he now sees Gingrich as a threat. Prompted by Baier, heÂ launched his first attackÂ on his rival, labeling Gingrich â€œa lifelong politicianâ€ and suggesting that he lacks credibility on the economy.
The informal Romney adviser said he recently urged top campaign aides to take a more aggressive posture, telling them: â€œYouâ€™ve got to get out and fight for it. The shotâ€™s been fired, and youâ€™ve got to go.â€
A campaign spokeswoman declined to comment.
Across the country, many of Romneyâ€™s donors and political supporters said there is no sense of panic over Gingrich. Romneyâ€™s network takes comfort in the great financial and organizational advantages that he has amassed to help him survive a potentially grueling nomination fight.
â€œNewtâ€™s having his moment, but I think itâ€™s nothing more than that,â€ said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Romneyâ€™s national finance co-chairman, who added that he knows and respects Gingrich.
Johnson said he is confident in Romneyâ€™s strategy and has been impressed by his performance. â€œRomney has been very restrained and focused really on Obama and the task at hand rather than the other candidates,â€ he said.
Florida state Sen. John Thrasher, a member of Romneyâ€™s advisory committee, said he also feels confident in the candidateâ€™s structural advantages, but he thinks the campaign needs to respond to Gingrichâ€™s rise with vigor.
â€œThereâ€™s going to be some need to explain his positions,â€ Thrasher said, noting that Gingrichâ€™s past views on global warming â€œwonâ€™t sit well with the base.â€
This is a pivotal time for Romney, whose campaign has projectedÂ a sense of inevitabilityÂ even as he has struggled to build on his support. Now begins an intense period of testing for the candidate, who will have to win over some skeptical voters if Gingrich succeeds in consolidating support as the conservative alternative in an ostensible two-man race.
To read more, visit:Â http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2011/11/30/gIQAP8WaEO_story.html
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