WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney is still running an inevitability campaign, even as the emergence of Newt Gingrich has raised questions about whether Romney's inability to spark large-scale enthusiasm among GOP voters makes him vulnerable to a surprise loss in the primary.
Romney engaged with Gingrich for the first time Tuesday evening, casting himself as a businessman and the former speaker of the House from Georgia as a "lifelong politician."
"Speaker Gingrich is a good man, but he and I have very different backgrounds," Romney said on Fox News. "He spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington. I spent my career in the private sector. I think that's what the country needs right now."
"He is a lifelong politician," Romney said of Gingrich. "I think you have to have the credibility of understanding how the economy works. I do and that's why I'm in this race."
Romney's whack at Gingrich may be a sign of more to come. But so far, the former Massachusetts governor has been running as if he is already the Republican presidential nominee. The 12 conference calls hosted by the Romney campaign on Monday -- and another one on Tuesday -- were the latest evidence of this approach.
"It's all over except for the cussing and fighting," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), on one of the calls hosted by the Romney campaign, this one aimed at the Tar Heel state. "I think Mitt Romney's the nominee."
The calls were all in battleground states in an effort to respond to criticisms from the Democratic National Committee and continue to press the attack against President Barack Obama. Last week, the Romney campaign intentionally baited the Obama White House with its first TV ad, which used a partial quote from the president in a way that took his words out of context, and provoked a response from White House press secretary Jay Carney on board Air Force One.
Romney campaign officials have reveled in the fact that they are engaging with the incumbent president before the primary has even started, and on the issue that is most favorable to them: the economy.
As far as the conversation regarding Gingrich within the GOP goes, the Romney campaign wants that debate to focus on the question of whether Gingrich would be as effective as Romney in a general election match-up with Obama.
"Barack Obama is going to attempt to raise a billion dollars. And you can see what he's going to do with the cash. He's going to try to tear down his opponent," said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, in a Romney conference call Tuesday. "And Mitt Romney is the one candidate -- the one candidate -- that can put together the organization, the ground troops and the financial wherewithal to be able to compete and get our message out. The fact is that Mitt is ready to win in November."
The Romney campaign has gambled that it can win the primary without much of an emotional appeal to the conservative base, and then count on the base to become energized by its dislike for Obama and its desire to have a different president.
Yet as Romney has fought with the White House, Gingrich has developed a head of steam. He is now leading Romney in national polls, as well as in Iowa surveys, and got a big boost Sunday when the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsed him.
Romney's image, meanwhile, has taken some hits for running the misleading ad, and his criticism of Gingrich's position on immigration provoked ridicule from Rush Limbaugh of Romney's own muddled and confusing past statements on the issue. There are lingering questions about how much Gingrich's softer tone about how to deal with undocumented immigrants may hurt him in Iowa, but so far he appears to have weathered the storm rather well, especially given how badly Texas Gov. Rick Perry was hurt by his stumble on the issue.
Even Karl Rove, the former Bush White House adviser and Republican mastermind behind the fundraising behemoth American Crossroads, did not give Romney a nod when asked to name the GOP's best hope against Obama.
"I don't think we know just yet," Rove told Newsmax. "Four years ago the candidate who looked like he was in the best position for the general election and the primaries was Rudy Giuliani, whose hopes didn't survive the first cold night in Iowa on Jan. 3."
Thus the Romney campaign calls -- the massive blanketing of the media and political space -- looked a touch defensive, coming as they did one day after the Union Leader's endorsement of Gingrich.
Gingrich's rise over the past two weeks is a sign that Romney will have to earn the nomination. The party, especially its conservative wing, may nominate him in the end, but not without making him work for it.
Mitt Romney's campaign declined to comment.
If former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain drops out of the race due to a number of sexual harassment accusations and an alleged 13-year extramarital affair, that will likely increase the chances of Gingrich or another candidate consolidating the support of core conservative activists and voters. It could also raise the risk of Romney getting hit by another late-breaking wave, like he was in 2008 when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came from behind to win Iowa.
The Romney campaign views Gingrich, in a way, as perhaps its most vulnerable opponent, because of the vast number of issues ripe for political attack that exist in Gingrich's past.
Gingrich has so far only been attacked in Iowa from the shadows. A group called Iowans For Christian Leaders In Government, which is anonymous and lists no names or contact information for leadership on its website, has distributed flyers in Des Moines going after Gingrich for his past extramarital affairs. And the same group also sought Tuesday to undermine the impact of a Gingrich endorsement by Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, sending him an open letter questioning his ties to Gingrich and highlighting the $200,000 that Gingrich helped funnel to a Vander Plaats initiative in 2010.
The question is whether the conservative GOP base is tired of seeing Romney alternatives rise and fall, and will go for Gingrich instead of Romney. However, if the Romney campaign can make a vote for Gingrich look like settling instead of an inspired choice, it will have done much to defang the Gingrich threat.
Gingrich's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Iowa will be a crucial battleground over the next month leading up to the caucuses on Jan. 3. If Gingrich wins the Hawkeye state, he could give Romney a real run for his money. If Romney wins Iowa, he will be in the driver's seat heading into New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, with an opportunity to run the table and possibly clear the field early.
"I suspect in the next 30 some-odd days left before the vote in Iowa we're going to learn a lot about the capacity of these people to run a strong, effective campaign," Rove told Newsmax.
But one influential voice in Iowa, political blogger Craig Robinson, rang an alarm bell for Romney on Monday.
"The anti-Romney sentiment is stronger than I can ever remember it being in Iowa. Most of that is of Romney's own doing. His hands-off approach to Iowa has inflicted unnecessary damage to his campaign," Robinson wrote, noting that Romney has antagonized Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who first voiced his frustration with Romney in an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this month.
Robinson wrote that "Romney also seems to be stuck in neutral as the race enters its final phase before the Iowa caucuses."
"As we saw four years ago, Romney was unable to slow down the momentum that Mike Huckabee and John McCain were able to generate. Both passed Romney like he was standing still," Robinson said. "It seems as if that's about to happen again."
But others in the state cautioned that there is still a lot to be decided in the Hawkeye state. One Republican operative who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns said that talk of an anti-Romney sentiment is due in part to an "echo chamber."
"The same anti-Mitt people from last time are the same anti-Mitt people this time. There are a lot of them, but it hasn't significantly grown, if at all," the operative said.
State Rep. Erik Helland, the House majority whip from Johnston, Iowa, said that "people who write off Romney" are misjudging his chances.
"I think he's got a lot of potential in the state," Helland told HuffPost. "I see a lot of people that a year ago said anybody but Romney, and now they're saying, 'Well, I think I kind of like him.' They have a reluctant acceptance of him."
Helland added a counterpoint: "Also a lot of people are flocking to Newt. The interesting thing is it's people that you never saw coming, like the Christian conservatives."
But Steve Scheffler, a key social conservative leader in Iowa, said that Gingrich has yet to consolidate the support of the constituency he works with the most.
"I still think there's a big division in the ranks over who they think the best person is," Scheffler said. "A lot of people still like [former Sen. Rick] Santorum [R-Pa.] and like Bachmann."
A Gingrich wave in Iowa "might happen," Scheffler said, but has not yet materialized.
In the meantime, Gingrich's positions on key social issues are coming in for closer inspection and giving some Iowans pause, according to the Des Moines Register. Gingrich supports taxpayer-funded abortions for women in cases of rape, incest or when the health of the mother is at risk, and he supported limited embryonic stem-cell research in the past.
"The next 34 days and how they play it are so important," the Iowa Republican operative said. "Personally, I don't think it's too late [for Romney]. Barnstorming the state and carpet-bombing the airwaves will still have a major effect."It's still unclear, however, how much of a push Romney will make in Iowa. He has campaigned three times recently in the state, is sending mailers that say he is "pro-life" and "pro-marriage," and filmed a campaign commercial during his last trip to the state, though it has yet to go up on the air.