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Mitt Romney braces for sharp attacks as New Hampshire primary approaches

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Philip Rucker The Washington Post via Instagram Mitt and Ann Romney arrive in Manchester, N.H. on Jan. 4, the morning after he won the Iowa caucuses. From there, they boarded a bus Romney dubbed "Landslide Lounge."

MANCHESTER, N.H. – There are a lot of ways to attack Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary campaign, but somehow the former Massachusetts governor has made it this far in the contest without facing a sustained assault.

That is about to change.

When Romney touched down here in New Hampshire on Wednesday, he was greeted by a full-page advertisement bought by former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the state’s largest newspaper branding Romney a “Timid Massachusetts Moderate.” Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum called Romney a “bland, boring, career politician who will lose to Barack Obama” in a fundraising appeal to supporters.

And Gingrich used his concession speech Tuesday night in Iowa to signal that he would be taking a far more aggressive posture against Romney.

There’s nothing surprising about the other Republican White House hopefuls turning negative against the front-runner. The Iowa caucuses altered the race dramatically, and the candidates are likely to draw fresh and sharp contrasts with Romney as they jockey for position in two debates this weekend heading into the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries on Tuesday and Jan. 21 respectively.

Romney said he is prepared to aggressively defend his record, experience and policy positions. Indeed, he spent Tuesday afternoon huddled with his top advisers in a windowless conference room at the Des Moines Marriott practicing for the upcoming debates.

“Let the attacks come,” Romney said Wednesday morning on CBS’s “The Early Show.” “I’ve got broad shoulders. I know that when you get in a campaign, there’s a big target on you. Obviously, it’s a small target compared to what’s going to come from the Democratic National Committee and Barack Obama. They’re already begun attacking me. I’m not too worried about that.”

Since he entered the race, Romney’s campaign has been prepared to address attacks on the health-care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts, as well as his shifting positions on social issues like abortion rights.

“I understand people are going to rattle off a list of supposed sins, and then you get a chance to go through them one by one,” Romney told CBS News. “I think the people of New Hampshire in particular know pretty darn well what I faced when I was governor of Massachusetts.”

Through the fall and winter, Romney survived a series of debates relatively unscathed, with his opponents aiming much of their fire on whichever candidate was experiencing a momentary surge in the polls.

Last month, as Gingrich moved into a commanding lead, Romney and his campaign launched a sustained assault over his experience in Washington, temperament and conservative record. The attacks, coupled with a caustic television advertising campaign financed by a political action committee independent of Romney’s campaign but run by former Romney aides, were seen as contributing to Gingrich’s sudden fall in the Iowa race.

In his concession speech, Gingrich previewed his own line of attack against Romney: contrasting his work in Washington during the Reagan presidency with Romney’s record in Massachusetts.

Gingrich asked whether the GOP wants as its nominee “a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and helped change Washington in the 1990s as speaker of the House, somebody who is into changing Washington, or [do] we want a Massachusetts moderate who, in fact, will be pretty good at managing the decay, but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any ability to change the culture or change the political structure or change the government.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a Romney backer who spent Monday traveling with the candidate on his bus tour across Iowa, said Romney is prepared for whatever attacks come.

“It’s a big boy sport,” Chaffetz said. “I think they’re ready for it. It’s no surprise. They’ve always planned on a national campaign and they always knew it would be bruising. There’s a lot at stake. They’re prepared to play offense and defense.”

Romney’s advisers have been mum about how he plans to defend himself or how aggressively he would push back against Gingrich, Santorum and any other candidate that attacks Romney.

“We’ll see,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “Stick around as the campaign unfolds.”

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