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 sometimes been on the defensive. The candidate appeared rattled in a Fox News interview Tuesday 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.