“What we’re here to say — with reluctance, but clearly — is that he’s not a reliable and trusted conservative leader,” Talent said. “Because he’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader.”
Gingrich “is more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principle,” Sununu said.
The new approach marks a clear turn in a campaign that has been notable so far for a lack of one-on-one combat. It was also a signal that Romney feels threatened by Gingrich’s sudden lead in three of the four early states and aims to aggressively take him on as the pair head for a series of January showdowns, starting with the Iowa caucuses in less than four weeks.
Gingrich, who said on Thursday that he would “stay positive,” is aiming to use the next few weeks to remind voters that he’s the same leader whose big ideas and sharp rhetoric inspired a Republican “revolution.”
Romney will try to make certain voters remember that Gingrich is the same leader who had to leave that revolution in mid-stream, resigning in 1998 after less than four years as speaker amid ethics charges and dissension from GOP lawmakers.
Gingrich “got a plane that hadn’t flown in 40 years to fly,” said former congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who supports Romney. “But sometimes we went to the left. Sometimes we went to the right. Sometimes we went straight up. Sometimes we went straight down.”
“Newt is an entrepreneur more than he’s a manager,” Shays said.
Romney could have hit Gingrich in other ways. The candidate’s biography includes three wives, a $300,000 fine for ethics violations and a $250,000-plus charge account at Tiffany. Gingrich has changed his tune on subjects from health-care reform to climate change — and he recently scoffed at the entire notion of child-labor laws.
But Romney hopes to reverse a slide by turning one of Gingrich’s biggest assets — his experience in Washington — into a weakness.
The campaign hopes to paint Gingrich as a philosopher-politician whose inconsistent behavior has undercut the conservative agenda. In contrast, Romney’s campaign will stress its own candidate’s years as a businessman working in the real world.
“Gingrich creates theories,” their message goes. “Mitt creates jobs.”
The Romney campaign provided talking points to its congressional supporters that stressed this contrast: “Gingrich has spent a lifetime operating in theory while Mitt has succeeded in practice.”
Asked about Romney’s attacks on Thursday, Gingrich responded with the same combination of charm and ego that distinguished him in the 1990s. He dismissed the charges, and the candidate himself, at the same time.