WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney confronted double-barreled allegations Monday that he has flip-flopped on key issues, the first time the 2012 presidential campaign has focused squarely on what many see as the Republican contender's biggest political liability.
The former Massachusetts governor hastily arranged for supporters to hold conference calls with reporters to combat a new Democratic ad that highlights his changed positions on abortion, immigration, guns and other issues.
And Romney also took fire from a Republican rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, fresh from an important endorsement in New Hampshire, told a South Carolina radio audience that "it's wrong to go around and adopt radically different positions based on your need of any one election."
The lines of attack showed that leaders of both parties see Romney as the Republican front-runner, with the Iowa caucuses five weeks away. The criticism also sharpened the campaign rhetoric only days after Romney raised eyebrows with a TV ad that quoted President Barack Obama out of context.
The trading of blows had to compete for attention with the latest setback for Herman Cain, who surged to the top of GOP opinion polls at one point but has recently faded. A Georgia woman said Monday she had had a 13-year affair with him. Cain, who is married, denied the allegation. His lawyer said "private alleged consensual conduct between adults" should not be a subject of campaign coverage.
Romney supporters say Obama is eager to turn attention away from the weak economy. But the urgency of his campaign's reaction to the Democratic ad suggested he sees the flip-flop accusations as serious.
Details of Romney's shifts on key issues are not new. Yet they have played only a peripheral role in the eight-person GOP nominating contest so far, to the dismay of some Democrats.
In a career that includes an unsuccessful Senate race and one term as governor in Massachusetts, plus a 2008 presidential bid, Romney at times has favored legalized abortion, a ban on assault weapons and a pathway to legal status for some illegal immigrants.
He since has rejected those views. He also takes a harder line than before on government stimulus programs and bank bailouts. Romney's health care initiative in Massachusetts required residents to obtain medical insurance, but he rejects the notion that it was a model for Obama's national plan enacted last year.
Over the years, Romney has minimized the significance of some of his policy shifts. He attributes others to heart-felt changes of opinion.
The Democratic National Committee on Monday launched a multi-state attack, portraying Romney as a politician in conflict with himself. A TV ad is airing in the battleground states of North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Democrats also held events in Iowa, Florida, Michigan, Maryland and Massachusetts to call attention to a longer and more detailed version of the criticisms on the website mittvmitt.com.
The video calls Romney "an unparalleled flip-flopper." It shows two late-night comedians mocking his sincerity and three Fox News reporters seeming to question Romney's authenticity.
Romney's campaign responded with conference calls featuring current or former Republican officials from nearly a dozen states. In general, their remarks focused on Obama's economic record rather than on point-by-point efforts to defend Romney against flip-flop charges.
Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who endorsed Romney after dropping his own presidential bid this year, said Obama has failed to create jobs or reduce the federal debt. "This administration does not want to campaign against Mitt Romney and be forced to defend three years of failure," Pawlenty said.
In one conference call, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said Romney "has stated clearly that his position has evolved" on abortion. McHenry said he is satisfied that Romney would be a staunchly anti-abortion-rights president.
Meanwhile Monday, Gingrich told WSC Radio in Charleston, S.C., that he is "a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney." In response to a question about Romney's eagerness to be elected, Gingrich said: "I wouldn't switch my positions for political reasons. It's perfectly reasonable to change your position if facts change. If you see new things you didn't see - everybody's done that, Ronald Reagan did that. It's wrong to go around and adopt radically different positions based on your need of any one election. Then people will have to ask themselves, `What will you tell me next time?'"
Democratic activists said it's unlikely their ads will significantly influence the GOP primary. But they are happy to start roughing up Romney now, either to begin getting their message out to independent voters or conceivably to help another possible Republican nominee viewed as more vulnerable than Romney next fall.
GOP insiders have seen Romney as the favorite from the start. Yet polls show him struggling to lock down the support of more than one-quarter of Republicans. The Iowa caucuses will be held Jan. 3, with the New Hampshire primary coming a week later. January contests in Florida and Nevada will follow.
Gingrich won the sought-after endorsement Sunday of the Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper and a prominent conservative voice in the state. He hopes to avoid the type of momentum losses suffered earlier this year by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Cain after they rose to the top of Republican polls alongside Romney.
Romney generally answers accusations of flip-flopping by diminishing his shifts in views or calling them old news.
The new DNC ad shows an undated video clip of him addressing abortion and saying, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose."
In early 2007, Romney said he changed his view on abortion after meeting with a stem cell researcher.
"The comment was made that this really wasn't a moral issue because the embryos were terminated or destroyed at 14 days," Romney said at the time. "And it struck me very powerfully at that point, that the Roe v. Wade approach has so cheapened the value of human life that someone could think it's not a moral issue to destroy embryos that have been created solely for the purpose of research." Romney said he told an aide, "I want to make it very clear that I'm pro-life."Roe v. Wade is the landmark 1973 court decision that barred states from outlawing abortion in most instances.