Mitt Romney struggles to find a strategy to combat Newt Gingrich’s surge

December 1, 2011

By  and Peter Wallsten, The Washington Post

All along, everything has gone according to Mitt Romney’s plan. His strategists didn’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 didn’t count on a late and strong rise by Newt Gingrich.

Once left for dead, the former House speaker has suddenly emerged as Romney’s most durable opponent yet — 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?

“Is there enough time for Gingrich to self-destruct on his own before Jan. 3, or do you have to help it along? It’s a tough call,” said a GOP strategist who informally advises Romney’s campaign and, like other advisers interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

Romney’s strategists are gaming out scenarios. They say they understand the risk that, in a multi-candidate field, any attack they make against Gingrich could boomerang to hurt Romney and help a third candidate.

Taking on Gingrich is “going to be a process,” one adviser said. “It’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.”

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 a Fox News interviewTuesday when he was pressed by host Bret Baier to explain his changing positions on some issues.

“Bret, I don’t know how many hundred times I’ve said this, too. This is an unusual interview,” a visibly agitated Romney said, as he wiggled in his seat, crossed his legs and forced a laugh. “Ha, ha, ha, ha. Let’s do it again.”

In that same interview, Romney hinted that he now sees Gingrich as a threat. Prompted by Baier, he launched his first attack on his rival, labeling Gingrich “a lifelong politician” 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: “You’ve got to get out and fight for it. The shot’s been fired, and you’ve got to go.”

A campaign spokeswoman declined to comment.

Across the country, many of Romney’s donors and political supporters said there is no sense of panic over Gingrich. Romney’s network takes comfort in the great financial and organizational advantages that he has amassed to help him survive a potentially grueling nomination fight.

“Newt’s having his moment, but I think it’s nothing more than that,” said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Romney’s national finance co-chairman, who added that he knows and respects Gingrich.

Johnson said he is confident in Romney’s strategy and has been impressed by his performance. “Romney has been very restrained and focused really on Obama and the task at hand rather than the other candidates,” he said.

Florida state Sen. John Thrasher, a member of Romney’s advisory committee, said he also feels confident in the candidate’s structural advantages, but he thinks the campaign needs to respond to Gingrich’s rise with vigor.

“There’s going to be some need to explain his positions,” Thrasher said, noting that Gingrich’s past views on global warming “won’t sit well with the base.”

This is a pivotal time for Romney, whose campaign has projected a sense of inevitability 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.

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