DES MOINES, Iowa – Inviting contrasts with thrice-married religious convert Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney cast himself as a man of consistency in religion and matrimony Wednesday as he and other GOP candidates went after the latest front-runner in a strikingly aggressive new phase of the Republican campaign.
"I'm a man of steadiness and constancy. I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do," the former Massachusetts governor said in a new TV ad that included grainy home videos of his wife and five sons. There was no mention of equivocations and policy reversals that his critics have pointed out.
Also on Wednesday, in hopes of reviving a flagging rival campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched an ambitious effort to compete against Gingrich for the support of Christian evangelicals by emphasizing his Christianity in a flood of new commercials in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa. Separately, Texas Rep. Ron Paul pressed his contention that former House Speaker Gingrich was simply a Washington insider who would eventually flame out.
"He's the flavor of the week," Paul said dismissively on CNN. "Our growth is steady."
The sharper tone — limited to TV for now — marked a pronounced shift in the Republican presidential race away from policy differences and toward character distinctions, with the new GOP leader in state and national polls — Gingrich — clearly the focus a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. The former Georgia lawmaker is getting a second look from Republican voters across the country after his campaign imploded earlier this summer, and time is running short for his opponents to slow him before the voting starts.
Polls suggest some Republicans are starting to conclude they may have to embrace Gingrich as the conservative they've been waiting for — despite personal and professional blemishes — if they want to stop Romney, who has the backing of much of the GOP establishment but irks many conservatives.
"At the end of the day, people are going to have to decide what they can live with," said Amy Kremer, the Tea Party Express chairwoman.
She was among the group of conservatives that grilled Gingrich during a private two-hour meeting in Washington on Wednesday over his busy post-congressional consulting career, a potential liability as the Republican base yearns for an outsider.
"It wasn't a walk in the park for him," Kremer said, adding that the free-wheeling discussion touched on Gingrich's discipline as a candidate, his support for climate change legislation and his acknowledged marital infidelity.
But, she said, Gingrich's frank responses — he says he is chastened and more disciplined than before — turned some skeptics.
Gingrich wasn't the only candidate in Washington. His rivals also were in the city that's home to the White House they seek, most of them railing against President Barack Obama's Israel policy before the Republican Jewish Coalition.
But some of the real action was 1,000 miles to the West in Iowa, where the airwaves crackled in the candidates' absence ahead of Saturday's nationally televised GOP debate in Des Moines.
This week in Iowa alone, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, Romney and a political action committee supporting Perry are spending a combined $630,000 on television ads. The Texas governor and his allies have by far have the most ads on the air, and the candidate plans to commit even more money to ads in the coming weeks. Not including this week or next, Perry alone has pumped more than $2 million into TV advertising in the state over the past six weeks, indicating he's still competing heavily for a strong showing in Iowa despite polls that show him in the single digits.
A major question is how soon Romney allies will dip into their mound of cash to start running ads against Gingrich.
A new New York Times/CBS News Poll this week showed Gingrich, whose sudden rise has come faster than his once-shaky campaign's ability to organize in Iowa, with support from 31 percent of likely caucusgoers. Gingrich led Romney, who was at 17 percent, with Paul in third at 16 percent. The survey is consistent with a CNN poll out Wednesday showing Gingrich leading in Iowa with support from a third of likely caucusgoers.
Gingrich rivals sense opportunity given that the race in Iowa is highly volatile. Most potential Iowa caucusgoers say they could still change their minds about whom to support; influential evangelical conservatives remain split, and voters here haven't yet been made fully aware of Gingrich's decades of personal and political baggage.
That's starting to change.
Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government, whose backers are unknown, wrote anonymously this week to the leader of a social conservative group in Iowa, The Family Leader, to urge it not to endorse Gingrich in light of his divorces and extramarital affair with the woman who is now his wife. The group also has circulated a new Web video that reminds Republicans that Gingrich once appeared with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advocate action on climate change, a sore subject for some conservatives, and it circulated fliers earlier in the year condemning Gingrich for his two divorces.
It's not just outside groups.
Rivals, themselves, also now are differentiating themselves from Gingrich in ads — though not always overtly.
"I've been married to the same woman for 25 - excuse me, I'll get in trouble - for 42 years," Romney is shown saying in the new ad, airing in both Iowa and New Hampshire. "I've been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games."
The spot doesn't mention Gingrich but makes the contrast by painting Romney as a strong family, church and business leader, compared with his chief rival — three times married, a Catholic convert and the former U.S. House speaker. Gingrich's divorces and fall from grace over ethics charges in Congress more than a decade ago still give some influential social conservatives in Iowa pause.
Asked about the ad, Gingrich told CNN that Romney was "a very admirable person" who has a wonderful family and added: "I'm not going to pick a fight over Mitt Romney."
Even so, when questioned about how both he and Romney had supported health care coverage mandates in the past, Gingrich couldn't help but get a dig in, saying: "The difference between Mitt and I is that I think I was wrong and I changed. I think that he thinks he's wrong, but he's being stubborn."
The tit for tat reflects the volatile Iowa race.
Romney stepped up his campaign in the state this fall after having kept his distance as the field assembled through the summer. After finishing a disappointing second in 2008 in Iowa after spending $10 million there, he wanted to control expectations this time.
However, seeing an opening in the past two months, he has spoken of winning Iowa, only to now see Gingrich emerge.
With little left to lose, Perry signaled he would compete aggressively for the same pool of voters Gingrich is wooing — Christian conservatives who make up the base of GOP primary voters in Iowa and elsewhere — launching a month-long, $1.2 million ad campaign in the leadoff caucus state.
"I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian," Perry says in a new ad. "But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."
"As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage," Perry adds. "Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again."
He rolled out the ad, his second focused on religion, ahead of bus tours in South Carolina on Thursday and Iowa on Sunday — two states filled with evangelicals and cultural conservatives.
Paul, for his part, put on TV a version of an Internet video that talks of "serial hypocrisy" and assails Gingrich on a host of fronts. They include the more than $1.5 million his consulting firm got from federally backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac, his joint call with Pelosi for congressional action to limit climate change and his past support for requiring that Americans obtain health insurance.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.