12/08/2011 10:33 am ET

Mitt Romney vs. Newt Gingrich: Campaign Goes On Offense Against Former Speaker

WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich finally appears to be making Mitt Romney nervous. On Thursday morning, the Romney campaign held a conference call with reporters to paint the former House Speaker as an unreliable conservative, the first time it has gone on the offense against one of the other GOP presidential candidates.

Romney surrogates John Sununu, a former governor from New Hampshire, and Jim Talent, a former senator and congressman from Missouri, led the call with campaign spokesperson Gail Gitcho.

"The speaker's running as a reliable and trustworthy leader. And what we're here to say with reluctance, but clearly, is that he's not a reliable and trusted conservative leader, because he's not a reliable or trustworthy leader," said Talent. "I say that with reluctance, as a person who had the speaker as my leader for four years in the 1990s. But it's because of that experience that I say it."

Until now, the Romney campaign had focused its fire on President Obama and Democrats, recently holding 12 calls in one day to respond to the Democratic National Committee on the economy.

The Romney campaign re-aired Gingrich's criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget plan in May, when he referred to it as "right-wing social engineering." At the time, Gingrich came under fierce condemnation from fellow Republicans, and he eventually apologized to Ryan.

On Tuesday morning before the call, the Romney campaign sent out a press release reminding reporters about Gingrich's remarks, headlined, "WITH FRIENDS LIKE NEWT, WHO NEEDS THE LEFT?"

"Conservatives want our next president to be an ally in the fight to reform government and cut spending. Speaker Gingrich's attack on Paul Ryan's plan as 'right-wing social engineering' -- and then denying his own attack before doubling down on it -- is the kind of Washington politics that Americans are tired of. Lifelong Washington insiders can't fix the mess they helped create," Gitcho wrote in the statement.

Sununu went so far as to state that Gingrich's treatment of Ryan demonstrated why he couldn't be the commander-in-chief.

"The off-the-cuff comment that Gingrich throws out on occasion is a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking that he goes through to deal with issues, and that is not what you want in the commander-in-chief," said Sununu. "What he did to Paul Ryan is a perfect example of irrational behavior that you do not want in the commander-in-chief."

Talent argued that Democrats are giddy at the thought of running against Gingrich because of his record of making controversial remarks -- which is why Republicans should choose Romney.

"The election is going to be about -- if Romney is the nominee -- Obama's failed policies, and we have an excellent chance to win and then do what needs to be done," said Talent. "If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee. Which is exactly what the Democrats want."

Talent pointed to Gingrich's time as speaker of the House in the 1990s as proof of why he is unfit to run the country and lead the Republican Party.

"Yes, we got some things done [in the 1990s], but we also reached a conclusion after four years that we could not go on with him as our leader and continue accomplishing things," said Talent. "It was exactly because of the kinds of things that he just did to Paul Ryan. We were in a situation where you would get up every morning, and you would have to check the newspapers and the clippings -- that was before the Internet -- to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district."

According to the Washington Post, the Gingrich campaign plans to roll out endorsements from lawmakers in the coming days to combat the perception that he alienated members of Congress.

Talent declined to criticize personal baggage such as Gingrich's marital infidelity, although a recent Romney ad attempts to portray a clear contrast between the two candidates, featuring the former Massachusetts governor talking about his decades-long marriage to his wife, Ann.

Expect more sparring between the Romney and Gingrich campaigns in the coming weeks. Sununu went on MSNBC Thursday morning to continue the offense, and Gitcho told reporters that they will continue to "do these contrasts between Mitt Romney and Speaker Gingrich" and hold more conference calls.