Romney Rolls Out First Attack on Gingrich

Faced with the former Speaker's unexpected surge, Mitt Romney's campaign has begun its assault -- and there is more to come

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As Newt Gingrich has surged past Mitt Romney in GOP primary polls, Romney's team has grappled with how to handle the volatile former House speaker. The famously undisciplined Gingrich has so far declined to blow himself up, and with just weeks until voting begins in Iowa, the Romney camp has decided it can't wait any longer. The time has come to tear Gingrich down.

And so, Thursday morning, two heavyweight Romney supporters, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and former Missouri senator Jim Talent, held a conference call with reporters "to discuss Speaker Newt Gingrich's record," according to the press release announcing the call.

Given the amount of potential attack fodder that lurks in Gingrich's long career in public life, reporters were eager to see where the Romney team would choose to go first. The answer: Gingrich's attack earlier this year on Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to reform Medicare. Gingrich memorably called it "right-wing social engineering" in a May appearance on "Meet the Press."

The point wasn't so much that Gingrich's position was wrong, though Sununu and Talent did indignantly defend Ryan from the long-ago slight as though he were a sensitive and beloved offspring. The point they wanted to lodge was that Gingrich is unpredictable, erratic, and apt to fly off the handle, leaving others to clean up the resulting messes.

"For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to make him sound a little smarter than Republican leadership," Sununu said, was "the most self-serving, unconservative thing one can imagine." He added, "Gingrich's undercutting of Paul Ryan proves that he's more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles."

Talent, who served under Gingrich's speakership in Congress, recalled why Gingrich's own party ended up driving him out of Washington. "You would get up every morning and have to check the newspapers -- this was before the Internet -- to see what the speaker said that day that you were going to have to clean up in your own district." Gingrich, Talent said, is "running as a reliable, trusted conservative leader," when he is none of those things.

It's not clear whether this attack will resonate with the GOP voters who are flocking to Gingrich. Part of what they seem to relish about Gingrich is his pugnacious aura, his very unpredictability. It's what makes it so fun to hear him talk or watch him debate. It's also a big part of what separates him from Romney, even though the two share many not-so-conservative positions on issues: Romney is the essence of responsible, reliable correctness. That Gingrich is not is part of what makes him exciting. 

At the same time, Gingrich's penchant for bombast is only fun until he trains it on you. His congressional troops found that out, and Romney hopes to put primary voters in their shoes.

But if this attack doesn't land for Romney, not to worry -- there's plenty more in the arsenal. Now that Romney's campaign has started to unload, there's no going back. As Romney's communications director, Gail Gitcho, reminded reporters at the end of Thursday's call: "We will continue to do these contrasts between Speaker Gingrich and Mitt Romney, so we will continue to do these phone calls."

If Gingrich didn't know an all-out barrage was coming, he certainly does now.

Image credit: Getty Images/Alex Won
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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