BETHLEHEM, N.H. — Mitt Romney, seemingly happy with how the Republican presidential campaign is playing out, is not explaining or apologizing for TV attack ads paid for by his allies that have damaged his chief rival's political standing 12 days before the Iowa caucuses.
Whether he's the true front-runner or not, Romney is acting like one. He refuses to be dragged into debates about the campaign's tone, high-stakes brinkmanship in Congress over a payroll tax dispute – or into a one-on-one debate sought by Newt Gingrich.
The former Massachusetts governor on Thursday shrugged off Gingrich's complaints about the ads and Romney's reluctance to weigh in on the political standoff over extending payroll tax cuts, which lawmakers late in the day appeared to be resolving just in time to head off a hit on workers' paychecks Jan. 1.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, has repeatedly called on Romney to face him before cameras and defend the ads, which are largely financed by a heavily bankrolled group friendly to Romney.
"We've had many occasions to debate together, and we'll have more, I presume quite a few more, before this is finished," Romney told The Associated Press. "But I'm not going to narrow this down to a two-person race while there are still a number of other candidates that are viable."
Some party insiders expect a strong showing in the lead-off Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 by libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. But they generally see Gingrich, a prominent GOP figure for more than 30 years, as having the best chance to compete with Romney for weeks or months.
Gingrich and Romney planned to campaign through Friday, underscoring the stakes for both candidates even as the pace by the crowded field began to lighten for Christmas weekend. The barrage of ads, though, kept up in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In a sign of his late organizing start, Gingrich spent Thursday in Virginia, scrambling to secure the 10,000 voter signatures he needs to get on the state's March 6 primary ballot. It cost him a precious day of campaigning in Iowa and in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 10.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been by far the heaviest spender in Iowa. However, his campaign this week gave 30-day termination notices to all political consultants in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Aides said the campaign was moving toward fiscal discipline as it prepares for a long multistate strategy.
But even in states that vote early, political consultants rarely receive such notices. Some are usually retained with an eye toward the general election, or sent to other states.
Gingrich renewed his call for Romney to condemn or defend ads sponsored in Iowa by a so-called super PAC. It's run by Romney supporters who are legally barred from coordinating with the official campaign.
Romney, interviewed during his bus tour of New Hampshire, didn't take the bait.
"Could I come out and speak about ads, generally, and speak about positive ads and negative ads?" Romney asked. "Of course, that's available to everybody. But I'm not in any way coordinating the ads or the approach that's taken by the super PAC."
Gingrich scoffed at the explanation, saying Romney could easily condemn the ads without breaking campaign finance laws.
"It tells you a lot about Gov. Romney," Gingrich told reporters in Richmond, Va. "I'm happy to go all over Iowa and point out that he doesn't mind hiding out behind millions of dollars of negative ads, but he doesn't want to defend them. The ads are false."
Ads showing in Iowa accuse Gingrich of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, and remind voters of his 1998 ethics problems in Congress, which involved his paying a $300,000 penalty. More subtle ads tout Romney's 42-year marriage, an indirect swipe at Gingrich's two messy divorces.
Gingrich said some ads dealing with abortion are inaccurate. Iowans will not reward "falsehoods by millionaires," he said.
Despite such remarks, Gingrich has vowed to stay positive. It's a decision partly driven by his inability to match Romney, Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry with heavy ad buys.
Some prominent Republicans came to Romney's defense. Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, a Romney supporter, said he's getting tired of Gingrich's "whining."
And former President George H.W. Bush told the Houston Chronicle that Romney is the best choice for president. "I like Perry, but he doesn't seem to be going anywhere," Bush said.
Romney also dissociated himself anew from the debate in Washington over a proposed two-month extension of a cut in payroll taxes.
"I really don't think it's productive for me to describe which of all of the compromises within the sausage-making process is my favorite compromise position," Romney said, refusing to go "deep in the weeds."
Gingrich responded: "If you're a candidate for president and you're not prepared to talk about the hottest issue right now which affects every single working American – there's a concept called leadership. And people sometimes think that I'm too aggressive, but at least I lead."
"I think there's a timidity of calculation," Gingrich said. "I suspect some candidates have had consultants say `Oh, don't take any risks.'"
Afterward, House Speaker John Boehner, in a retreat from the position Gingrich favored, announced that he expects to pass a new bill by Christmas to renew the tax break and federal unemployment benefits for two months while congressional negotiators work toward the yearlong extension House Republicans had been holding out for.
Some of Gingrich's and Romney's rivals rolled through Iowa on long bus tours. Rep. Michele Bachmann, stretched thin as she tries to visit all 99 counties, planned 10 visits Thursday before taking a brief break for Christmas. With her voice failing, she relied on supporters to make the case for her as she walked around diners and restaurants, whispering greetings to her fans in rural Iowa.
She was shouted down at the popular Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, with protesters blasting her conservative position on gay rights, health care and taxes.
"You're not wanted here. So go, just go," they chanted.
Perry stopped at two meet-and-greets with Iowa caucus-goers, many of whom remain undecided. He also attended a town hall-style meeting near Des Moines before returning to Texas for the holidays. While Perry has struggled to regain his one-time, front-runner mantle, his ads have blanketed Iowa and helped paint him as a conservative alternative to Romney and Gingrich.
Perry's campaign has spent $4.4 million on TV ads in Iowa – twice as much as any other candidate there – and $234,000 in New Hampshire. The super PAC behind Perry, Make Us Great Again, has spent an additional $200,000 on Iowa TV this week, bringing its total to more than $1.65 million.
Paul is also spending heavily in Iowa. His campaign spent about $500,000 on Iowa TV this week, bringing its total to about $2.2 million. The Romney-friendly super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent almost $2.8 million in Iowa, largely on ads hitting Gingrich.
Gingrich aimed his sharpest barbs Thursday at President Barack Obama. He blamed the president for the impasse over the payroll tax, said a two-month extension made no sense and commented that the political squabbling makes the U.S. look "like Italy on a bad day."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Bethlehem, N.H., and Philip Elliott in Iowa contributed to this report. Babington reported from Richmond, Va.