DES MOINES, Iowa/CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, angry over his poor performance in the Iowa caucuses, may have a new and unlikely partner in his quest to tarnish rival Mitt Romney: President Barack Obama.
Though they both wish to win the 2012 election, Obama and Gingrich share an agenda in bringing down Romney, who won the first Republican nominating contest in Iowa on Tuesday.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, who was first in Iowa polls only weeks ago, came in a disappointing fourth place after being attacked heavily in ads by an outside group aligned with Romney.
Obama’s campaign is concerned about these outside groups’ potential to damage him in a general election. It would prefer a long primary battle on the Republican side and would benefit if Romney was wounded first if he ends up being the nominee.
The Obama campaign expressed, in its own way, some sympathy for Gingrich being the target of Romney’s so-called SuperPAC, a group that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns.
“Governor Romney won the Iowa caucuses by eight votes in part because he called in the air force in the form of his SuperPAC to carpet bomb Newt Gingrich in what was undoubtedly the most brutal and negative campaign Iowa has seen,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist.
Axelrod said he was concerned about the same treatment from the Romney-connected group in a general election campaign.
“I‘m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s obviously a factor,” he told reporters on a conference call. “It is a concern. But the difference, I think, is that the president is thoroughly known to the American people.”
Gingrich has been raising the temperature on Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, going into the next Republican nominating contest in New Hampshire next week.
“Governor Romney is a moderate Massachusetts Republican, to the left of the vast majority of Republicans,” he said in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
“He can’t even break out in his own party and I don’t think he’s going to. And he’ll do fairly well here, this is one of his three best states. But the fact is that Governor Romney in the end has a very limited appeal in a conservative party.”
Obama’s campaign would be happy if Gingrich could define Romney in a more negative light, which would allow the president to hold back his own attacks and stay above the fray for a while.
The former Georgia lawmaker has said his supporters want him to continue with a “positive” campaign, but some would like to see him get more aggressive, too.
“I don’t think he has any choice after what happened in Iowa,” said Ken Barrett, a 64-year-old auctioneer from Meredith, New Hampshire, who said he planned to vote for Gingrich.
“Romney went after him and it hurt. He tried to be low-key and it cost him.”
Both Gingrich and Obama’s advisers have sought to raise expectations for Romney in New Hampshire, where he has long held the lead in polls. A less than stellar showing there could reveal a weakness for Romney’s rivals to exploit.
Gingrich faces risks in becoming too negative, however. Appearing angry could conjure up unflattering images for voters in upcoming primary states of his combative tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s.
“The danger for Gingrich attacking Romney is it’s going to bring up all the old Gingrich flame-thrower baggage,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University.
“Folks in Florida, folks in South Carolina who are watching cable news and following this stuff on the Internet are going to be exposed to the meaner, acerbic Newt as opposed to the professorial, idea Newt. I can’t see that helping him.”
It would help Obama, whose advisers are using a similar playbook to Gingrich’s in terms of portraying Romney as someone who can’t decide between liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning ideas.
“Taking two positions on every issue, one more on the left and one more on the right doesn’t make you a centrist. It makes you a charlatan,” Axelrod said about Romney, echoing a Gingrich line of attack. “It makes you unreliable. I think that probably was Speaker Gingrich’s point.”
Reporting By Jeff Mason; Editing by Paul Simao