Gingrich’s surge gives Romney camp pause
Ignoring his rivals could be hurting
WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney’s strategy of focusing on President Obama rather than his GOP competition, and appearing mostly in media venues such as the Fox News Channel, has created new problems that threaten his candidacy, analysts said yesterday.
Perceived for months as the Republican front-runner, Romney seems stuck at around 25 percent in national polls and is battling for the lead with a competitor once relegated to the low single digits, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
“Up to this week Romney has been content to run out the clock, try to avoid making mistakes, and hope that there are enough other candidates in the race that they will splinter the other 75 percent of the vote,’’ said John Carroll, a Boston University communications professor who studies the campaign. “Now Gingrich has come and just exploded the whole strategy.’’
The Romney campaign declined to comment. But analysts said the campaign realizes this week is a potential turning point that may require a major strategic shift that includes directly taking on Gingrich, possibly in campaign ads that highlight Gingrich’s personal and political record. At the same time, Romney’s campaign announced yesterday it had started advertising in the first-caucus state of Iowa, signaling that Romney hopes to place highly there.
In a whirlwind development over the past two weeks, Gingrich has leaped from near the bottom of the pack to seize the lead in polls in three key early-voting states - Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida - and has climbed to within 10 points behind Romney in the first-primary state of New Hampshire. Unlike other competitors who have briefly vied for the hearts of conservatives and the role of “anti-Romney,’’ Gingrich seems to have survived initial rounds of critical reviews and is using his experience gained in winning and losing the speakership to take on Romney.
Meanwhile, Romney is battling the perception that he stumbled during what is seen by many as a de facto pre-primary contest for Republicans: appearances on Fox News Channel. Romney has limited his interviews, refusing to appear on Sunday shows such as “Meet The Press’’ for 20 months, and only recently has increased the number of times he has appeared on a favored venue such as Fox. But on Tuesday Romney had a testy interview on Fox in which he appeared rattled by a seemingly standard question about his support of his health care plan in Massachusetts.
“I don’t know how many hundred times I have said this,’’ Romney responded. “This is an unusual interview.’’ Asked what book he read most recently, he said it was a “fun one’’ but declined to give the title, then said he read George W. Bush’s memoir. Afterward, Romney chastised interviewer Bret Baier.
“He didn’t like the interview and thought it was uncalled for’’ and “overly aggressive,’’ Baier later told Fox viewers.
A number of conservative commentators, including Fox’s own analysts, blasted Romney’s performance. Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review, wrote: “There’s absolutely no excuse for Romney to be so flat-footed in his responses.’’
Goldberg, who just returned from a Caribbean cruise with 500 conservatives that was sponsored by National Review, said in an interview yesterday his shipmates typically had an attitude of “I’ll vote for Romney if I have to.’’
The cruise, he said, provided a window into Romney’s problem. While Romney has “checked the boxes’’ on conservative issues, he said, many conservatives do not love him.
“They don’t have an organic connection to him,’’ Goldberg said. “He doesn’t come out of any of the established conservative tribes.’’ National Review magazine endorsed Romney in 2008 but has not declared a favorite so far in this race.
Gingrich, meanwhile, sat for an hourlong interview on Fox on Wednesday with Sean Hannity in which he variously sounded humble, professorial, and bombastic. He said he had been “immature’’ in arguing with his then-wife when she was hospitalized and they were about to be divorced, and that he was “stupid’’ when he appeared alongside then-speaker Nancy Pelosi in an ad declaring the need to tackle climate change. Gingrich also said he is now the man to beat.
“Whereas I would have thought originally, it was going to be Mitt and not-Mitt, I think it may turn out to be Newt and not-Newt,’’ Gingrich said.
The danger analysts see for Romney is that the narrative he wants - that he is a business specialist who is best equipped to turn around the nation’s financial fortunes - will be undone by a repeat of the 2008 complaint that he lacks authenticity and cannot win over skeptical conservatives. A number of prominent publications are highlighting Romney’s vulnerabilities. The cover of Time magazine shows Romney beside the headline, “Why don’t they like me?’’
To be sure, Romney has many factors in his favor. There is a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Romney has a far more solid financial and political infrastructure than his competitors. If things go Romney’s way, his competitors will split the social conservative vote in Iowa and leave him enough support for a victory, and his game plan of winning New Hampshire remains reasonably intact. As Gingrich continues to be scrutinized for myriad controversial statements, as well as his receiving millions of dollars from corporate clients, his poll numbers could decline.
Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College professor of government, cautioned yesterday that polls could shift just as quickly against Gingrich as they did for him. Female voters might dislike the fact that Gingrich has been married three times, she said.
Moreover, she said, “Gingrich still is missing the basic ingredients of a primary campaign, money and organization, so if I were Romney I wouldn’t be worried about him.’’
R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, denied that characterization.
“We don’t have those problems anymore,’’ he said, adding that the campaign is bringing in contributions at a steady clip and setting up a solid organization.
Nonetheless, Hammond said, New Hampshire is by far the Gingrich campaign’s biggest challenge, given Romney’s strength in the state.
But Romney also faces the risk that some of the lower-level candidates could do well enough to upend his game plan. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has climbed in the New Hampshire polls, which could peel away moderates from Romney.
Huntsman yesterday seized upon Romney’s appearance on Fox, releasing a web video that said Romney was “scared Mittless’’ of answering questions about his flip-flops. In a telephone interview, Huntsman said he had taken the opposite approach of Romney, giving countless interviews and press conferences, while holding 112 events in New Hampshire.
“In the final stretch we will prove the point that one’s core actually matters,’’ Huntsman said.
Romney’s challenge was evident yesterday in Moultonborough, N.H.
“I guess I’d say I liked him for a while, but then Newt came along,’’ said Mike Brooker, 65, a salesman at Aubuchon Hardware Store.
William Perl, 55, watched Romney on Fox News earlier this week and thought he was “very good,’’ but he, too, is intrigued by Gingrich. In the end, Perl said, his choice will come down to whichever of the two proves himself in the final stretch.