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Romney, Gingrich trade barbs on ads

Fight grows for undecided N.H. voters

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 22, 2011
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KEENE, N.H. - Mitt Romney passed out slices of cheese pizza in the afternoon and steaming plates of spaghetti at night. But it was his delivery of a blunt message yesterday to a chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination that sparked the most talk as both front-runners converged on the Granite State.

Being a candidate for president means being able to withstand all kinds of scrutiny, Romney warned Newt Gingrich, including negative advertisements.

“That’s the nature of a campaign, to point out distinctions with one another,’’ Romney told reporters at the Stage Restaurant in Keene. “And with regards to the heat associated with ads, you know, if you can’t stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until [President] Obama’s hell’s kitchen shows up.’’

It was a line he also delivered on Fox News and MSNBC, complete with the word “hell,’’ in response to Gingrich’s complaints about the tenor of the campaign. Romney, a Mormon, had previously been known to express the underworld as “H-E-double-hockey-sticks.’’

Gingrich, speaking in Manchester, responded by challenging Romney to a one-on-one debate next week in Iowa. “Ask Governor Romney, would he like to come and play in the kitchen?’’ Gingrich said. “I don’t think he wants to do anything but hide over here and pretend it’s not his fault that he’s flooding the people of Iowa with falsehoods.’’

With less than three weeks until the primary here, both campaigns are intensifying efforts to win the undecided votes. For Gingrich, who has only recently been consistently campaigning in the state, a strong showing here could catapult him into the following primaries of South Carolina and Florida.

No state is more important to Romney than New Hampshire, where he has spent more time campaigning than any other.

A strong win here is considered crucial to building momentum.

But much of the advertising pummeling Gingrich has been in Iowa, where voters head to caucuses on Jan. 3. Restore Our Future, an independent political action committee run by Romney supporters, has spent millions of dollars on ads targeting Gingrich.

This type of group, called a super-PAC, has no limits on campaign donations, although they are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns.

Some campaign watchers partially attribute a softening of support for Gingrich to the ability of those ads to sow doubt among Iowans.

Gingrich called on Romney yesterday to “disown’’ the PAC.

“For him to stand to one side and say ‘Oh gosh, I don’t have any influence over my former staff and I don’t have any influence over my millionaire friends who wrote the big checks,’ it’s just not honest,’’ Gingrich said.

“These are his ads,’’ Gingrich added. “They’re dishonest, they’re destructive, and the only person they’re helping is Barack Obama.’’

Romney distanced himself from the ads, saying he had no control over the group running them - he has, however, helped them raise money - but he also declined to call on them to take them down.

For his part, Gingrich has pledged to run a positive campaign, saying voters are tired of such ads. A late bloomer in the campaign, Gingrich also does not have the organization or money to go head-to-head with such advertisements.

His commitment to staying positive, however, apparently does not extend to comments on individual states.

“We’re thinking of having a Massachusetts rally at some point in New Hampshire, sort of a please don’t turn America into Massachusetts,’’ he told around 125 people at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester.

Gingrich explained later that Massachusetts, the state Romney governed for four years, is “a very expensive state with a very liberal political culture.’’

Gingrich and Romney yesterday also took different tacks on the impasse in Congress over how and whether to extend the payroll tax cut. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a two-month extension, but House Republicans have rejected the measure.

Romney declined to fully engage, refusing to criticize House Speaker John Boehner or join Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts in calling the actions of House Republicans “irresponsible.’’

“I’m not going to get into the back and forth on the congressional sausage-making process,’’ Romney said.

Gingrich was harshly critical of the two-month extension, saying Congress should extend the tax cut for a year.

“The idea that you get a two-month extension, then you don’t know what will happen next, so you have another crisis in late February, this is about as stupid a way to run a country,’’ Gingrich said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s worthy of the Italian Parliament.’’

He said the fault lies with Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has left for its holiday break.

“Arrogantly, they pass a bill and leave the city,’’ Gingrich said.

Illustrating the importance of New Hampshire, Romney is in the midst of a three-day bus tour here, stopping in such places as Village Pizza in Newport and the VFW hall in Ashland, where he served the spaghetti dinner. He plans stops in seven towns today.

At Village Pizza, Romney strode through the crowd to the counter and ordered a small Hawaiian pizza, asking them to throw on some olives. “Is that strange?’’ he added, and then answered his own question. “Yeah.’’ (His wife, Ann, agreed).

The media horde trailing him almost matched the number of patrons in the restaurant. He walked around the crowd, guessing that one boy was 4 years old (he was 3), delivering cheese pizzas to tables, and answering questions from voters.

“He’s gotten to understand why I call the see-me, touch-me, feel-me aspect of campaigning,’’ said former governor John Sununu of New Hampshire, who has endorsed Romney. “He clearly enjoys it.’’

Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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