* After Gingrich's rise, a choice for Romney
* Rising concern in former Mass. governor's campaign
* Former House speaker still faces big challenges
By Steve Holland and Sam Youngman
WASHINGTON, Dec 7 Is it time for Mitt
Romney to come up with a new plan?
For months, the initial frontrunner in the race for the
Republican nomination for president has sought to overwhelm his
opponents. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has won
waves of endorsements from party leaders, raised more than $32
million, and shown a knack for avoiding confrontations.
Then came Newt Gingrich's surprising burst to the top of
the polls, fueled by his appeal to conservatives whose votes
are crucial to the eventual winner of the Republican contest.
Now - after a year of campaigning and endless polls,
Republican candidates get their first official chance to test
their popularity with voters. Iowa kicks off the party's
nominating process in January - and Gingrich's recent rise has
brought Romney's campaign its first crisis.
Romney has a choice to make, analysts say: Continue his
focus on beating President Barack Obama in November and hope
Gingrich stumbles along the way; start directly
attacking Gingrich, or employ some combination of both.
Romney's decision could define the Republican
campaign for months to come.
Sources close to his campaign said there is an internal
debate over how to respond to the surge by the former House of
Representatives speaker, who has a double-digit percentage
point lead in Iowa.
"They do not want to go at Newt directly," said a close
adviser to Romney's campaign who asked not to be identified.
"Romney and Gingrich actually have a very good personal
relationship, and they are aware of the fact that Gingrich is
an effective attack politician. So they don't want to make him
any angrier than necessary. But to the extent that (Romney)
surrogates are willing to take him on, that's to be
The adviser was not sure whether Romney - whose typical
manner is one of cool detachment - could lead an effective
attack on Gingrich.
"I personally question whether Romney as the attack dog
against someone else in the party really would work for him,"
the adviser said.
ROMNEY TAKING OFF THE GLOVES?
This week, Romney signaled that he would be more
Romney, who twice during the past week has complained about
his treatment from reporters, agreed to appear on a Sunday
television talk show for the first time in more than a year -
"Fox News Sunday," on Dec. 18.
"You're going to see me on a lot more shows than I've been
on in the last several months," Romney said during a campaign
stop in Arizona.
Romney also told Fox News' Neil Cavuto that he would try to
draw a contrast between himself and Gingrich.
"I will not be quiet," Romney said. He added that he and
Gingrich have "very different life experiences."
That comment indicated that the nuanced jabs that Romney's
campaign occasionally has thrown at Gingrich are likely to
Last week, Romney sent his 36-year-old son, Josh, to
campaign in Iowa just before the Sunday Parade magazine ran a
friendly interview with Romney, 64, and his wife of 42 years,
Ann. The Romneys also are featured in a TV ad that began
running in Iowa on Wednesday.
The implied message to conservative Republican voters:
Compare Romney's stable family life to the more turbulent one
of Gingrich, who is in his third marriage.
So far, Gingrich, 68, has countered Romney's veiled
criticisms with what have amounted to backhanded compliments.
Gingrich has called Romney likable and smart, but wondered
whether a "moderate Republican" such as Romney is conservative
enough to win the nomination.
GINGRICH FACES HURDLES
The Romney campaign - methodical, well-organized and
heavily scripted - contrasts with Gingrich's unconventional,
shoestring approach. Gingrich has leaned more on free
appearances on television talk shows and interviews, than
traveling to smaller meetings with voters.
Six months ago, Gingrich's campaign seemed to be going
nowhere and key staff members quit after questioning his
commitment to the race.
But Gingrich's chances have of winning the nomination have
soared as other would-be contenders -- namely Herman Cain and
Texas Governor Rick Perry -- fizzled, and he has performed well
in televised debates.
He still faces major challenges: He is scrambling to
raise money to keep airing TV ads, and he won't be on the
primary ballots in some states -- such as Missouri -- because
his campaign did not meet deadlines for collecting voters'
signatures on petitions.
For now, Gingrich's campaign relies heavily on social media
such as Twitter and Facebook to advertise TV interviews and
stay connected with his supporters.
Winning the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 could give Gingrich
enough momentum to challenge Romney in New Hampshire's Jan. 10
primary. Romney has double-digit leads in polls there.
But Gingrich is ahead in South Carolina for its Jan. 21
A RISKY STRATEGY
Gingrich's record in Washington, where he has been known as
both a creative problem-solver and an occasionally reckless
self-promoter, would seem to be prime for Romney's attack.
In 1997 he was reprimanded by the House for ethical
wrongdoing and penalized $300,000. Then, after Republicans made
a poor showing in the 1998 congressional elections, he resigned
from the speakership and from his seat in the House.
In the years since, he has made millions of dollars as a
consultant for firms seeking to do business with the
Romney, to this point, has focused largely on bashing
Obama's leadership on the U.S. economy.
However, his campaign has begun sending a popular
surrogate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to South
Carolina, Florida and Iowa.
Christie has questioned Gingrich's work as a legislator
while emphasizing Romney's background in business.
"Gingrich has never run anything," Christie said last week
in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Romney himself gently has raised questions about Gingrich,
saying in New Hampshire on Saturday that he was not sure
"America needs better lobbyists or better dealmakers, better
Gingrich, meanwhile, is relishing the role of frontrunner
and seems to be trying to assure Republican voters that his
longshot campaign really can defeat Romney's.
As was the case in his Washington days, Gingrich is prone to
hyperbole: He has referred to himself as a celebrity, and
compared his political comeback with Sam Walton's creation of
Wal-Mart and Ray Kroc's development of McDonald's restaurants.
The way Gingrich has built momentum for his small campaign
-- through televised appearances and interviews aimed at
national audiences, rather than voters in specific states --
carries some risk, analysts say.
Doug Gross, a Republican from Des Moines who was chairman of
Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008, said the question for Gingrich's
team is, "Can they translate popularity at the national level
into actual turnout at the caucuses on a cold January night?"
Gingrich's Iowa headquarters opened on Nov. 30 and has five
staff members. Romney has not competed as heavily in Iowa as his
rivals; his staff is about the same size.
"Our ground game is a little behind," said Gingrich
spokesman R. C. Hammond. "But what we lack in time we'll make
up with intensity and intelligence."
Gross, who has not endorsed anyone this time, said Romney
will have to "put some serious nicks on Newt's image."
To do that, Gross said, "I think Romney's going to have to
engage Newt directly."