Mitt Romney scrambled Sunday to try to blunt the momentum of Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich after a Saturday night debate that saw the two candidates clash repeatedly over who is better equipped temperamentally and substantively to be the party’s nominee.

The Iowa debate framed the issues and the arguments for the coming phase of a Republican nominating contest that has turned dramatically in just the past two weeks. The sharp exchanges of the debate continued Sunday, with surrogates for the two leaders carrying on a heated argument on television that underscored the long-standing divisions and personal animosities surrounding Gingrich’s tenure as House speaker.

Romney left Des Moines for a town hall meeting here in New Hampshire, where a victory in the Jan. 10 primary has become even more important given Gingrich’s strength in Iowa and elsewhere. The former speaker made no public appearances Sunday.

“It’s very fluid,” Romney told reporters in Hudson. “These polls have bounced all over the place in the last year. . . . But I’m convinced I’ll be successful in this effort. I think I will become the nominee.”

With barely three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich has opened up a healthy lead in the state. Romney remains ahead in New Hampshire, but his margin has shrunk. Polls released Sunday by NBC News and Marist show Gingrich with double-digit leads over Romney in South Carolina and Florida, whose primaries are the next two contests after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney had hoped Saturday’s debate, the first that featured Gingrich under attack and on the defensive, would help slow the former speaker’s rise. But Gingrich weathered the attacks without losing his composure, leaving Romney to look to Thursday’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa, for another opportunity.

Debates have played a significant role in the GOP race this year, and Thursday’s will be the last before the caucuses. The forum, which will be televised by Fox News, will become critically important in shaping some of the final impressions Iowa voters will form ahead of caucus night.

Meanwhile, the other Republican candidates took aim Sunday at the two leaders, arguing that they are both cut from the same establishment mold and would not bring the kind of conservative change being demanded by many Republicans in the party’s base.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, attempting to capitalize on an exchange in Saturday’s ABC News-Yahoo News-Des Moines Register debate, said that Romney’s challenge of a $10,000 bet to settle an argument over health care showed that Romney is out of touch with Iowa voters. Perry said on ABC’s “This Week” program that as he drove to the interview Sunday morning, he was sure “I didn’t drive by a house that anyone in Iowa would even think about that a $10,000 bet was possible.”

The Democratic National Committee also pounced on Romney’s $10,000 wager offer by posting a video ridiculing the former Massachusetts governor, while the campaign of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. launched a Web site, www.
, tweaking Romney.

When a reporter asked Romney whether he regretted offering the bet, he tried to play down the incident with humor. “After the debate was over, Ann came up and gave me a kiss and said I was great,” Romney said, adding that his wife joked to him: “There are a lot of things you do well. Betting isn’t one of them.”

When another reporter asked whether $10,000 was the largest bet he had wagered, Romney chuckled and said only “That’s all I’ve got.”

Romney’s aides, meanwhile, quickly moved to defend the comment. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said it “was my favorite part of the debate. . . . Perry gets up there, and he lies every time in these debates, and he says something he knows is not true. . . . Will you just shut up? If you believe it, stand up for it, and he backed down.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) all called into question the conservative credentials of both Gingrich and Romney, with Bachmann reprising her “Newt Romney” line from Saturday night. Appearing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” she said, “It’s clear there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”

Paul, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” agreed. “They’re both from the same mold . . . They’re both on the defensive,” he said.

Santorum, on CNN’s “State of the Nation,” joined in that criticism, saying, “We need this race to be about Barack Obama and his record, not with Republicans agreeing with that record.” But he also raised doubts about Gingrich’s temperament to be president. “Three years into his speakership, there was a conservative revolution to try to get rid of him as speaker,” he said.

The sharpest rhetoric of the day came from former New Hampshire governor and former White House chief of staff John Sununu, a leading Romney backer, and Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman and longtime Gingrich ally during their time in the House. The surrogates debated each other on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where Sununu charged that Gingrich wraps himself “in mantles of grandeur with Churchill and Reagan.”

Sununu said that in the Oval Office, “you don't try and be a professor, sitting at the front of the room. You try to deal with things after you’ve thought about them.”

Walker defended Gingrich’s temperament and condemned the Romney campaign for launching harsh attacks.

“Most of the people that you’ve heard from are a part of the Romney Rottweiler group that are the attack dogs that they have sent out,” Walker said.

Meanwhile, Huntsman, whose standing in the polls is so dismal that he wasn’t allowed on Saturday’s debate stage, held three town halls Sunday across New Hampshire, where he has staked his candidacy. Before a crowd of about 50 people — many of them independent voters — in a church basement in Weare, Huntsman contended he is the most electable Republican running. “You can turn this election upside down,” he told them.

The NBC News-Marist polls showed Gingrich leading Romney in South Carolina by 42 percent to 23 percent. An October poll by the same organizations showed Gingrich at 7 percent in the Palmetto State. In Florida, Gingrich leads Romney 44 percent to 29 percent. There Gingrich has gained 38 percentage points since October.

The rapid movement highlights the remarkable rise of Gingrich as the caucuses and primaries near. Republican voters have shifted allegiances repeatedly this year and a number of state polls have shown that they are not firmly locked in behind any candidate at this point.

In New Hampshire on Sunday, Romney picked up the endorsement of Manchester Mayor Ted Gastas. But he was the target of a scathing editorial in the Union Leader, which earlier endorsed Gingrich. The headline read “Romney’s desperate hours.”

Balz reported from Iowa. Staff writer Karen Tumulty in New Hampshire contributed to this report.


Congress edges toward spending deal

FACT CHECKER: Gingrich on health-care mandates

THE FIX: Mitt Romney’s $10,000 mistake

CANDIDATE WEEK: Perry is confident, but is he ready?