The New Mitt Offensive: Newt Gingrich the Unreliable

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Molly Riley / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's 2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, Dec. 7, 2011.

Don’t call it an attack. It’s a “contrast” that was debuted Thursday morning, Mitt Romney’s attempt to set up a clear choice for Republicans as they enter the final weeks of a suddenly exciting campaign: Romney The Not-Entirely Likable vs. Newt Gingrich The Entirely Unreliable.

“He’s not a reliable or trustworthy conservative leader because he is not a reliable or trustworthy leader,” former Sen. Jim Talent said of Gingrich on a morning conference call for reporters organized by the Romney campaign. Former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu was on the call as well. “The off-the-cuff comment that Gingrich throws off on occasion is an example of the off-the-cuff thinking that you do not want in a commander-in-chief,” Sununu said.

Attacks on temperament and reliability are as old as the GOP’s elephant mascot. Mitt Romney and George W. Bush used them against John McCain, and supporters of Richard Nixon used them against Mitt’s father, George, in 1968. In this race, there is once again a clear route for Romney to untether Gingrich, who has a reputation for going off message and allowing his improvisational thoughts to undermine his long term interests.

But the attack comes late in the game. As a TIME/CNN/ORC poll showed yesterday, Gingrich holds big leads in several key states, including nearly 50% of the vote in Florida. A Romney loss in Florida, if it came to pass, would do real damage to his electability argument, and leave the one time frontrunner in a position similar to Hillary Clinton, playing a long game for delegates.

For much of the past week, Romney was missing-in-action as he criss-crossed the country raising big checks for his coming television ad onslaught. Gingrich meanwhile has been doing his best to dazzle Republicans with his big brain, making the crowd swoon with his big ideas and blunt talk Wednesday at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Washington, D.C. On the likability scale, Gingrich clearly has the ability to outshine Romney in front of Republican crowds. (Whether he can do the same with independents in the general election remains an open question.)

But Romney’s campaign has taken the new threat in stride. This has been the defining feature of the Romney campaign. One of Romney’s best friends, the old Bain colleague Bob White, has been telling people in recent months that Romney is a lot more like New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady this time around. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, or the fastest legs. But he can see the whole field like no one else.

At Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters, Iowa is not yet being written off as a strategic failure, as many pundits have been suggesting. (The TIME/CNN/ORC poll Wednesday actually showed Romney rising in the state, to 20%, a fact lost in the excitement over Gingrich’s ability to poach former Herman Cain voters.) Romney aides expect Perry to get a small bump in the polls in the coming weeks, given the size of his television buy in the state. They also are not counting out Michele Bachmann to grab some of the Gingrich share in the face of negative attacks on the former speaker.

Which brings us back to Thursday morning’s Romney offensive. The ostensible reason for the call was to discuss Gingrich’s comments earlier this year that the Paul Ryan deficit reduction plan was “radical” and “right-wing social engineering.” As a matter of politics, Gingrich was making an accurate point at the time. The Ryan plan, though it claimed a clear ideological and policy coherence, was not designed as something to win over the centrists and independents. But Gingrich, by pointing out the obvious in overly stark terms, made the plan, and himself, less relevant.

Those comments Gingrich nearly sank his campaign this summer. And so the Ryan comment has become the first in what will no doubt be a series of examples that Romney supporters will point to make the “unreliable” case against Gingrich. There is plenty more in the wheelhouse, dating back to long before Justin Bieber was born. Much of how this plays out will depend on how Gingrich responds. One small misstep now will be blown into a major boondoggle. (Remember John Kerry carelessly remarking that he had voted for the bill before he voted against it?) But that’s why we have elections, to test the candidates. Next stop, this Saturday, on ABC. It will be debate night in America again. And the fireworks will fly.