The mitts are off, so to speak, in the Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney, the former front-runner, and his current and most serious rival, Newt Gingrich, are now engaged in an all-out war.
With only a few short weeks until voters in Iowa go to the caucuses, Romney is doing everything he can to stop Gingrich's sudden and surprising rise.
GOP strategist Ed Rogers, who's neutral in the race, says the Romney-Gingrich battle offers Republican voters a stark choice: "Romney is a sure-footed, attractive, vanilla candidate," he says. "It's going to remain to be seen whether ... a majority in the party need somebody more reckless, more spicy, more belligerent."
The spicier Gingrich's rapid rise has already forced Romney to abandon his safe front-runner's strategy. After months of avoiding interviews, Romney is giving them daily.
"Zany is not what we need in a president," Romney told The New York Times on Wednesday . "Zany is great in a campaign. It's great on talk radio. It's great in the print; it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader, and a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability and patience and temperance."
Romney is getting some help from the other candidates who also need to stop Gingrich. Ron Paul, who is strong in Iowa, is airing an ad attacking Gingrich for consulting work he did for Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage bundler many conservatives blame for the financial crisis.
Gingrich was asked about all the attacks Wednesday in Iowa.
"They should run their campaign the way they want to. I'm going to run my campaign the way I want to," he said. "And my campaign is going to focus on positive ideas and positive solutions. And I'm, frankly, taking the gamble that the American people care about actually solving our country's problems, not just watching politicians beat each other up."
But there are lots of people — mostly Republicans — beating up on Gingrich, calling him "unstable," "grandiose," "hubristic," "disloyal" and "self-righteous." And those are just the ones we can repeat here.
All of this may be taking a toll. Several surveys show Gingrich's lead slipping a bit. Rogers says Gingrich's sudden surge to the top flabbergasted many Republicans, who are a little freaked out at the thought that he could end up the nominee.
"There's terror in the streets of Washington. A lot of people in the establishment have ... been burned by him," Rogers says. "This just wasn't part of the playbook for him to be the challenger to the front-runner, much less the front-runner."
But if Gingrich is going to be derailed, the Romney camp better hurry up, Rogers says, before the holidays distract voters.
"The days now matter and every day that the Gingrich campaign has the absence of calamity is a good day for Newt," he says.
Thursday night's debate in Sioux City, Iowa, would be a good place to start. It's the last debate before the Jan. 3 caucuses. And, as conservative blogger Erick Erickson points out, the debates have been the main event of the race — more than anything else, they've determined the shifting fortunes of the candidates.
"They're the one communal strain that every part of the Republican Party can see at the same time, experience for themselves — and Newt is a fine debater," he says. "Romney's debate performances have been worse and worse."
Erickson, like other conservatives, has thrilled to Gingrich's comeback story but is still anguished.
"In my gut, I really do fear that if Newt Gingrich does not implode in the primaries, he will in the general election," he says. "People are really, really nervous that he's not going to be able to keep his ego in check."
Erickson calls Gingrich "the great American Sisyphus."
"He rolls his political career up to its pinnacle and then it rolls back down again over and over and over."
But though conservatives are nervous about Gingrich, "they're not nervous enough to support Romney," Erickson adds.
At least not yet. And that's why the dynamic of the Republican race has been turned upside down.
For months, it looked like Romney might wrap up the nomination quickly. Now, Republicans are wrapping their minds around the possibility of a long, protracted battle — for which Romney, at the moment, seems to be better positioned, should that be necessary. Romney has the resources and the organization to go the distance in places where Gingrich hasn't even begun to build a campaign.
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