Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination are sparring over campaign ads, with Mitt Romney saying the party’s nominee will face worse in the general election and Newt Gingrich challenging him to defend the commercials in a debate.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, criticized the ad campaign being waged in Iowa by supporters of Romney through an independent political action committee. He said yesterday that the ads, which attack his work for the mortgage company Freddie Mac and the $300,000 fine he paid to settle a House ethics case, were “dishonest.”
Romney, traveling through New Hampshire on a four-day bus tour, said he had nothing to do with the ads, airing independently of his campaign, though he said there is nothing wrong with pointing out distinctions between candidates.
“The speaker would like to say, ‘Look, we shouldn’t have any negativity,’ but, look, if you can’t handle the heat in this little kitchen, the heat that’s going to come from Obama’s hell’s kitchen is going to be a heck of a lot hotter,” Romney said on MSNBC. “We have to show that we, as a Republican Party and as a candidate, that we can stand up to the barrage that’s going to come from the Obama world.”
Gingrich, both in Manchester, New Hampshire, and later at a rally in Arlington, Virginia, challenged Romney to meet him in a 90-minute one-on-one debate in Iowa next week where Romney could explain the negative ads.
Standing the Heat
He said the response will tell whether Romney “likes the heat, and whether he wants to come in the kitchen -- or whether, in fact, he’s just a normal national politician with clever consultants and lots of money and no willingness to stand up and tell the truth,” Gingrich said in Virginia.
The pro-Romney PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent more than $2.5 million on ads and direct mail against Gingrich, Federal Election Commission records show.
The ads began running as Gingrich challenged Romney for supremacy in national surveys. He leads Romney 25 percent to 23 percent in the daily national Gallup tracking poll.
Some Gingrich backers said the ads are hurting the former speaker.
“They’re having an impact,” said New Hampshire state Representative Kathleen Lauer-Rago. Gingrich “needs to come back and say, ‘This is my experience. This is what I’ve done.’”
New Hampshire Campaign
Campaigning in New Hampshire, where the first-in-nation primary will be held on Jan. 10, Romney was joined yesterday by home-state U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, former Senator Judd Gregg and the head of a local Tea Party group. Later, the campaign announced the endorsement of Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska and three former Iowa and New Hampshire House speakers.
Such endorsements can help voters who may not be familiar with those seeking their support, lawmakers said.
“If we are supporting a certain candidate, it will at least get them a look-see,” said one Romney supporter, New Hampshire state Representative Jack Flanagan.
A few hours later, Gingrich stood on a podium in a downtown Manchester hotel and received the backing of New Hampshire state House Speaker William O’Brien. Earlier in the day, Gingrich was endorsed by Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen.
He then flew to Virginia to announce he would file enough signatures to get on the state’s primary ballot. As recently as Dec. 19, he suggested he might “barely” make the ballot.
“We’re going to disappoint the Republican establishment, because tomorrow in Virginia we’re going to turn in vastly more signatures than we need,” Gingrich said yesterday as volunteers with clipboards collected names of eligible state voters.
Even so, he said he was still trying to capitalize on his surge in opinion polls.
“We weren’t ready for it yet because we don’t have the structure and we don’t have the money to compete at that level, so we had to scramble a little bit,” Gingrich said.
Romney, who owns a home in New Hampshire, leads in opinion polls in the state, though Gingrich has closed the gap. A Nov. 29-Dec. 6 CNN-Time magazine poll of likely voters put Romney ahead 35 percent to 26 percent. Four years ago, Romney lost the primary to Arizona Senator John McCain, who went on to win the Republican nomination.
The polls are still fluid, Gregg said in an interview before appearing on the podium with Romney in Keene.
“People decide late,” Gregg said. “They listen to everyone. The one thing that’s predictable about New Hampshire is that it’s unpredictable.”
--Editors: Jim Rubin, Mark McQuillan.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Manchester, New Hampshire, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Arlington, Virginia, at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org.