DES MOINES, Iowa — Looking past Iowa, Mitt Romney defended his conservative credentials Tuesday as he anticipated escalated attacks in New Hampshire and beyond from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Perhaps people forget that I ran for president four years ago, you may recall that along with Mike Huckabee I was the conservative alternative to John McCain," Romney said on Fox News Channel. He was responding to rival Newt Gingrich, who had accused Romney of lying about his moderate record. Romney said Gingrich, who has fallen in polls in the face of negative attack ads by Romney's allies, was "apparently angry."
"I've got a record, and it's a conservative record," Romney said.
Romney has spent most of the nearly four years since he dropped out of the 2008 race trying to win over a skeptical GOP base. He's had trouble with the party's right wing, which so far has jumped from candidate to candidate as it searches for a conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney said he is anticipating stepped up criticism from the Republican field in the wake of the leadoff Iowa caucuses Tuesday night.
"It's a long road, Romney told MSNBC. "I expect people to come after me. And if I do well here, I'll have a target painted on me, and so I expect other folks to come after me. And, you know, if I can't stand up to that, I shouldn't be the nominee."
In a show of force, Romney announced he was running TV ads in Florida, signaling that he has the money and the organization to wage a long-haul campaign.
Florida holds its primary at the end of the month, on Jan. 31.
The ad, which also has run in Iowa, is positive in tone and sells Romney as a candidate of "steadiness and constancy." So far, Romney hasn't aired negative TV ads. Instead, an independent organization that supports his candidacy has spent millions on ads harshly critical of rivals Gingrich and Rick Perry. The Restore Our Future super PAC is also on the air in Florida with negative ads.
Romney on Tuesday backpedaled a bit from his earlier prediction of a first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
"It's hard to predict exactly what's going to happen," he said on MSNBC. "I think I'll be among the top group."
But he was more bullish Monday night, telling hundreds of supporters in the Iowa town of Clive that he would win the caucuses – and, eventually, the GOP nomination for president.
Still, Romney said Tuesday the top three finishers "will get a good send-off" into New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, the first three primary states.
Hours before the caucuses, Romney made a final pitch to voters in an ornate ballroom at the Temple for the Performing Arts in Des Moines.
Democrats will "poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare," Romney said. "I believe in an America that is one nation under God, and I will keep it that way."
His chief opponents, polls show, are Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Thousands of caucus-goers remained undecided.
The former Massachusetts governor planned an evening gathering at the Hotel Fort Des Moines to await the caucus results.
Romney faces the same challenge here that he had in 2008: winning over conservatives skeptical of his moderate record, his changes on the social issues that are important to the state's many evangelical Christian voters and his Mormon faith.
But Romney faces diminished threats here from the two candidates his campaign worried most about: Perry and Gingrich. Instead of focusing on his rivals, Romney has set his sights on Democratic President Barack Obama.
Perry is skipping next week's primary in New Hampshire, where Romney is favored, to compete instead in the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina. Gingrich's standing in polls has been badly damaged by a barrage of negative ads from Romney allies.
Romney has been ever more confident as he campaigned across Iowa after Christmas. He's been buoyed by large crowds and the excitement they've shown. And while Romney's advisers acknowledge that an Iowa win is far preferable to a second- or third-place finish, they say they're prepared to compete nationally in a way the other candidates rivals aren't.