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Mitt Romney Signals He'll Doff Gloves To Stop Newt Gingrich

Mitt Romney watches as Newt Gingrich talks during Republican presidential debate in Spartanburg, S.C.
Mitt Romney watches as Newt Gingrich talks during Republican presidential debate in Spartanburg, S.C.

If Mitt Romney is still to become the Republican presidential nominee, he obviously must figure out how to get past Newt Gingrich's soaring support, that is, unless the former Massachusetts governor is hoping the one-time House speaker will self-destruct.

Gingrich being Gingrich, such an implosion could always happen.

But as we've been reminded many times, hope is not a plan. If Gingrich somehow doesn't derail himself, for Romney to get the nomination, it's obvious he'll need a stop-Gingrich strategy.

That likely means pulling off the equivalent of a billiards bank shot; going negative against Gingrich without turning off the very primary voters Romney seeks to attract.

Ever since Gingrich's ascent, Romney has seemed curiously restrained in his response to his latest rival for the nomination. He's used the same light-handed approach he aimed at Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain while foregoing the more aggressive tactics he deployed against Texas Gov. Rick Perry who seemed like a very real threat until it was clear the southerner had shot himself in the foot one too many times to remain in contention.

It was all part of Romney's frontrunner's strategy which was to create the aura of inevitability around his candidacy by doing little to elevate his Republican rivals.

He aimed most of his attacks at President Obama, garnered endorsements from establishment Republicans like a boy scout collecting patches at a jamboree and avoided doing media interviews and frequent news conferences for fear of making a gaffe that might come back to haunt him.

That strategy obviously failed, however, since it's Gingrich, not Obama, who's ahead in both national and state polls in important places like Iowa and South Carolina.

Now, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Romney is signaling that he plans to take on Gingrich. This will come as a comfort to some of his supporters who have expressed their worries to reporters that Romney wasn't doing enough to keep Gingrich from wrecking the party establishment's plan that Romney be the nominee since he figures to be Obama's toughest challenger in the field.

In an interview with Fox News' Neil Cavuto Tuesday when he was asked to respond to rising concerns among some of his supporters that he didn't appreciate the threat Gingrich represented and was being too passive, Romney said:

ROMNEY: "Just wait and see. That's what I'd tell them. We're going to make sure that the differences in our experience, our perspective, in our views on issues are well aired and people can make a choice. You can be sure I will not be quiet. I'm going to make sure my message is heard loud and clear. Speaker Gingrich is a friend. I respect him. But we have very different life experiences. And if the American people believe what we need is someone who spent 40 years in Washington, DC, working as an insider, well, he's the right guy..."

Note that Romney referred to his friend as "Speaker Gingrich" and not "Newt." Could it be that he's already taking the counsel of some who say that it's better to remind people of Gingrich's unpopular and controversial tenure running the House in the 1990s? (Read high school debate coach Jennie Savage's advice for Romney in this post in The Note.

When Cavuto asked Romney if he would raise Gingrich's well-known character flaws that were revealed as House speaker, including his arrogance and lack of focus Romney said:

"I'm not going to predict what our campaign is going to do..."

That will sound like a yes to many people. It would be surprising if Romney didn't go negative on Gingrich since standard political campaign operating procedure dictates that's what a candidate trying to win under these circumstances does with an ascendant rival.

Romney also indicated he plans to break out of his campaign bubble and talk to the media more, especially Fox News.

Romney had been avoiding even that cable news channel favored by conservatives. His being out of practice in such interviews may have contributed to a widely criticized prickly performance in a recent interview with Fox News journalist Brett Baier.

Romney is scheduled to appear on Fox News Sunday with host Chris Wallace this weekend:

ROMNEY: "I'll be on Fox a lot. Because you guys matter when it comes to primary voters. I want them to hear my message and have the opportunity to make a choice."

Romney insisted that he had planned to leave the safety of his campaign bubble all along as the caucuses and primaries drew nigh so he could make his "closing argument" to voters.

Maybe, but he really doesn't have a choice at this point.

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