WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is going after the conservative primary voters he needs to win in Iowa while chief rival Mitt Romney's advantage in money and organization is allowing him to look ahead to the general election.
With about two weeks left until voters begin assessing the GOP field, Gingrich pressed his criticism of federal judges and the Supreme Court. Romney defended his public and private-sector record against likely Democratic attacks.
Gingrich resumed campaigning Monday, with events planned in eastern Iowa, after taking the weekend off. Romney was appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
Romney also announced another endorsement, from Sen. Mark Kirk. The Illinois Republican said America needs Romney's "managerial talent, team-building spirit and hard-nosed sense of economic common sense."
On Sunday, both candidates took to the airwaves.
Gingrich mounted a broad attack on federal judges and the Supreme Court, arguing that they legislate from the bench and wield too much power in the country.
His argument could resonate in a state like Iowa, where Republicans fought a protracted battle with state Supreme Court judges over gay marriage.
"There is steady encroachment of secularism through the courts to redefine America as a nonreligious country and the encroachment of the courts on the president's commander in chief powers, which is enormously dangerous," the former House speaker said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
In a rare Sunday talk-show appearance, Romney portrayed himself as Republican best able to defeat President Barack Obama next year.
Romney defended his years making millions in private business, claiming he can handle expected attacks from Democrats who are already trying to paint him as out of touch. He also argued that his tax proposal is kinder to the middle class and less generous to the rich than the flat-tax proposals put forward by his rivals, including Gingrich.
"The president's going to go after me," the former Massachusetts governor said on Fox News Sunday. "I'll go after him."
Polls in Iowa and nationally show Gingrich ahead of Romney in the race for the GOP nomination to challenge Obama in November 2012. Gingrich has acknowledged that repeated attacks by Romney and others have taken a toll on his campaign.
In a bid to stay out front, Gingrich is focusing on ideology as he courts the Iowa conservatives he needs to win the Jan. 3 caucuses and challenge Romney's well-organized campaign in what could become a drawn-out primary.
Gingrich contrasted his endorsement by the "reliably conservative" Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire with the decision by Iowa's Des Moines Register, which has a more left-leaning editorial board, to back Romney.
"I think that indicates who the conservative in this race is," Gingrich said.
The two have set up a choice for primary voters between a candidate, Romney, who hasn't excited the conservative base but emphasizes his appeal to the independents needed to win the White House, or Gingrich, the candidate who sounds more conservative.
All the candidates were making last-ditch appeals before the holiday week sets in. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were campaigning in Iowa on Monday. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was in New Hampshire, where the primary is set for Jan. 10.
Their campaigns and the special political action committees that support them were planning major ad offensives on the television airwaves.
Gingrich's campaign planned to spend about $14,000 on ads while his rivals and their allies were set to dwarf that with more than $1.3 million in commercials promoting themselves or attacking Gingrich.
In a sign of his increased confidence, Romney pulled back from his aggressive attacks on Gingrich in recent days and shifted the focus back to Obama.
Romney also has been trying harder to humanize himself and spoke emotionally Sunday about his wife's struggle with multiple sclerosis.
He said the "toughest time" in his life was waiting in the doctor's office for her diagnosis. He said he feared she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal degenerative nerve condition.
The doctor "did these neurological tests, and then he – and we could see that she had real balance problems and she didn't have feeling in places she should have feeling," Romney said. "And he stepped out of the room, and we stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, `As long as it's not something fatal, I'm just fine. Look, I'm happy in life as long as I've got my soul mate with me.'"
"If you think about what makes a difference to you in your life, it's people," he continued. "Life is all about the people you love."
Gingrich, meanwhile, appeared relaxed and jovial in his interview. He acknowledged his comeback exceeded even his expectations. Top campaign aides resigned en mass earlier this year and his White House bid was burdened by deep debt.
"As we were sliding down. I thought I could fight my way back up to being in the top three or four," Gingrich said. "But I think positive ideas and positive solutions ... have attracted people. I think they like the idea of someone who's determined to be positive."
McCaffrey reported from Atlanta.