Newt Gingrich speaks during a meeting with employees at Nationwide Insurance… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)
Mitt Romney is not going to let Newt Gingrich win the GOP nomination without a fight.
The former Massachusetts governor's campaign ramped up the attack machine Thursday to label Gingrich as an unreliable and unelectable conservative, after a week's worth of polling showed the former House speaker with a decided advantage in most of the early-voting states.
Former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, who served under Gingrich in the House in the mid-1990s, and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu addressed reporters Thursday morning on an issue that had been one of Gingrich's early stumbles: his criticism of the Paul Ryan budget plan as "right-wing social engineering."
"The speaker's running as a reliable and trusted conservative leader. And what we're here to say, with reluctance, but clearly, is that he's not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he's not a reliable or trustworthy leader," Talent said.
Talent said Gingrich is a man of great intellect, who's made laudable contributions to the conservative cause. But he also says, as the Ryan criticism showed, "outrageous things that come from nowhere and he has a tendency to say them at exactly the time when they most undermine the conservative agenda."
"For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to try and make him sound a little smarter than the conservative Republican leadership, to undercut Paul Ryan is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening," Sununu said.
Later, he went even further, saying: "What he did to Paul Ryan is a perfect example of irrational behavior you do not want in the commander in chief."
Both men argued that if Gingrich wins the GOP nomination, the general election becomes as much about him and his record as it is about President Obama.
"And that's exactly what the Democrats want," Talent said.
The Romney campaign termed the surrogate effort Thursday one of simply presenting contrasts between the two leading GOP hopefuls. And they promised that there is more to come.
Romney himself has attacked Gingrich recently for his record as a "lifelong politician," and said that Gingrich would be a weaker foe against Obama.
His campaign is also sending more subtle messages. A new campaign ad that Romney launched Wednesday includes the candidate talking about his 42-year marriage; Gingrich is twice divorced.
"I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country, and I will never apologize for the United States of America," he says in the ad.
Gingrich, in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, indicated he was less likely to go negative in the same way against Romney.
"I think Mitt Romney is a very admirable person. And I'm not going to pick a fight over Mitt Romney," he told Wolf Blitzer. "He's going to run to what he things his strengths are. I think my strength is being a leader, being able to actually solve problems and being able to change Washington."