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Romney, Blindsided By Gingrich, Plots Recovery Course

Mitt Romney at a Medley, Fla. campaign stop,Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.
Wilfredo Lee
Mitt Romney at a Medley, Fla. campaign stop,Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.

Many people noticed how prickly Mitt Romney seemed in his interview the other day with Fox News' Brett Baier. Maybe you would be brittle too if you were running for president and someone you hadn't figured would become a factor in the race for the Republican presidential nomination was all of a sudden a big deal.

The Washington Post's Phillip Rucker and Peter Wallsten report that Romney's camp was thunderstruck by the rise of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

All along, everything has gone according to Mitt Romney's plan. His strategists didn't believe that Tim Pawlenty would catch on. They were confident that Michele Bachmann would fade. They were prepared for Rick Perry. They never thought Herman Cain would pass the commander in chief test.

But they didn't count on a late and strong rise by Newt Gingrich...

... For this unexpected turn in what has been a steady and sure campaign, the Romney team has no road map. With just five weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor and his advisers are trying to figure out what to do.

This should be interesting to watch. One of Romney's arguments for why he and not President Obama should be in the Oval Office is that he's a better leader and manager. His campaign now faces perhaps its most existential crisis. How he navigates through could provide some valuable insights about him.

With Gingrich, one obvious line of attack is the one taken by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in his new campaign video in which he charges Gingrich with "serial hypocrisy." Paul blasts Gingrich for taking views heretical to conservatives, then backpedaling furiously when called on that. The libertarian also excoriates Gingrich for reaping huge financial benefits as a Washington insider all the while decrying the incestuous culture of money and politics the nation's capital.

But as I've pointed out elsewhere, it would seem this would present Romney with a problem. How could he of all people attack Gingrich for shifting his position on policy issues without drawing attention to his own changed positions?

Apparently, Romney's campaign may not let that obvious risk keep them from going after Gingrich in the way that many have gone after the former Massachusetts governor.

Politico's Reid J. Epstein reports:

They'll point out Gingrich's past policy shifts which can protect them from attacks against Romney's own inconsistencies. They'll highlight Gingrich's conservative apostasies as a hedge against Romney's own moderate views. And they'll highlight his stable family while leaving an unspoken impression about Gingrich's two divorces.

The plan to increase the attention to Romney's wife of 42 years and five sons in the hopes of sparking more conversation about Gingrich's three marriages without raising the topic themselves is one of several subtle offensives.

Instead of protecting Romney from attacks against his own past shifts, it seems the Romney strategy could just make him seem hypocritical and trigger a spate of pot-calling-the-kettle-black news coverage and voter reaction. In otherwords, it could backfire.

Trotting out the Romney clan is fine as it goes and it could raise some questions about Gingrich's personal values. But attractive families and seemingly stable long term marriages only get you so far, just ask Jon Huntsman Jr.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.