WASHINGTON Mitt Romney's presidential campaign scrambled on Monday to fight challenges on two fronts: fellow Republican Newt Gingrich's momentum and new Democratic accusations of Romney's frequent flip flopping on policies.
The former Massachusetts governor launched a media assault against President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, after Democrats released a biting new ad that accused the Republican of changing his policy positions with the political winds.
Romney also vowed to fight for every vote in New Hampshire, where he suffered a setback at the weekend when a leading newspaper endorsed Gingrich as a better choice for conservative voters.
Long a frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in next year's election, Romney has seen Gingrich catch up in national polls and threaten his dominance in New Hampshire, where the first primary is held on Jan 10.
His spokeswoman Andrea Saul pledged that Romney would fight for every vote in the state, where he has a double-digit poll lead.
"We're going to go person to person, vote to vote, trying to earn every single vote in New Hampshire because Governor Romney knows that this is an important election and he wants to take his message directly to each voter," Saul told MSNBC.
The Democratic National Committee put further pressure on Romney by launching elaborate video spots calling him "two men trapped within one body" for changing position on issues from immigration to climate change.
Romney's campaign quickly organized at least a dozen media conference calls in which supporters said Obama was trying to distract from the sputtering economy, the issue expected to be at the center of the 2012 fight for the White House.
"Before the first vote in the Republican primary is even cast, the Democrats are blasting Mitt Romney and trying to tear him down and I think the reason for that is they don't want to focus on their own failure," former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said on one call.
The intense counterattack was a first by Romney's team, which has largely focused on touting his record as a former governor and businessman more able than his rivals to defeat Obama and fix the economy.
"My sense is that Romney's team likes it when Obama attacks him because it plays into the electability argument that Romney thinks is his greatest strength strategically," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.
'THE PRESUMED NOMINEE'
The Democrats are targeting Romney early because "he's running as the presumed nominee," Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse told reporters.
"People should know about his record. His rivals for the nomination haven't done a particularly good job in talking about Romney's record."
Republicans in Iowa will make their choice for the presidential nomination in caucuses on January 3, the first voting in the state-by-state process.
Republicans say Democrats appear to be trying to bash Romney because polls show he is leading or tied with Obama in states like Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, which are expected to be closely contested next year.
Romney has failed to gain much traction in opinion polls. His support from Republican primary voters has stayed at around 25 percent, and a series of rivals seen as more conservative have briefly replaced him in the No. 1 spot.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month showed Gingrich with 24 percent support compared with 22 percent for Romney.
Gingrich said he was far more conservative than Romney while campaigning in South Carolina on Monday.
"I don't claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anyone else," Gingrich told South Carolina radio station WSC.
"I wouldn't lie to the American people. I wouldn't switch my positions for political reasons," he said.
Romney has been seeking to appeal to conservatives by staking out positions they agree with, such as insisting he would grant waivers to all 50 states so they can opt out of Obama's healthcare overhaul law and a by taking a tough stance against illegal immigration.
Strategists said Romney needs to do more to win over the Republican right if he wants to beat Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry for the nomination.
"If he can demonstrate that he is going to put conservative principles in place to fix the economy ... he could have this whole fight in the general election with the Obama folks," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
(Writing by Patricia Zengerle, editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)