Mitt Romney, who just a month ago had hoped to seal the GOP presidential nomination with Florida’s primary on Jan. 31, tells Politico that he now foresees an epic fight with Newt Gingrich that could last through the California primary on June 5.
Asked if the former House speaker is the front-runner, Romney replied bluntly: “He is right now.”
Romney made it clear that he would rather lose than make incendiary charges about Gingrich that could help President Barack Obama in the general election. And the former Massachusetts governor said the nomination “is not going to be decided in just a couple of contests” and “could go for months and months.”
“You see how dramatically the numbers have moved and how quickly they have over the last year?” he replied Monday during a video interview at a grubby French-Canadian diner, Chez Vachon, a storied campaign stop that has hosted George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“It’s a very fluid electorate. I think I’ll get the nomination. I can’t predict when. … I’ve got – what? – five or six more months to go to make that a reality.”
Romney had clearly learned from his thin-skinned responses in a recent Fox News interview. This time, he kept his cool through extended questioning about why he is suddenly the underdog, and whether he has what GOP voters want.
Doubling down on his strategy of running responsibly when base voters seem to crave bombast, Romney said: “You said that our voters wanted red meat and that they therefore need a person who will give that red meat. I’m saying … that’s not who I am, and that’s not going to be successful in the final analysis. … “If … they want language that’s so incendiary that it really excites them, then some can offer that in a primary. And you can be assured that they’ll lose in the general. Because the people who decide elections, the people in the middle – by the way, people who last time voted for Barack Obama – do not want to have a president elected based on red meat.
“I’m not going to say outrageous things that can be used to hang [a GOP opponent] down the road. … In my view, [primary voters] want someone who is willing to be a responsible leader, that brings America together as opposed to dividing America. … I am what I am. I don’t tend to say outrageous things about other people that I don’t believe in order to win political points.”
Why has Gingrich surged?
“Got me,” Romney replied. “I think in the final analysis, when people take a very close look at our experience, at our records, at our backgrounds, they’ll recognize that my background and my experience as a leader is what America needs.”
Despite double-digit leads for Gingrich in three of the four early states, Romney pooh-poohed the idea that this is a white-knuckle season for him or his team.
“Oh, not at all, not at all,” he said. “I’ve got a family, I’ve got a life. I’m putting myself on the line to try and make a difference for the country I care deeply about, and to help the great majority of Americans that are really hurting; and if people don’t want me to do that, that’s fine.”
Romney was asked about a Sunday story on The Huffington Post that began, “Mitt Romney is now officially in trouble.”
“Look, ‘in trouble’ would mean that something bad might happen to me. I’m not in trouble. I’m in a great spot. I could become our nominee, or someone else might become our nominee and I can go back to business and go back to my family. Either one of those is a very nice outcome. … Of course I want to win. I’m fighting hard to win, but, you know, I have a life, too. … I’m not someone who is in trouble. ‘In trouble’ is someone who doesn’t have a bright future.”
Romney also resisted the bait when asked about a recent TIME magazine cover with his photo and the question, “WHY DON’T THEY LIKE ME?”
“For the entire last year, I’ve been either at the lead or No. 2,” Romney said. “That’s a pretty good place to be.”
As to the rap that he has trouble connecting with people, Romney replied: “Ah, baloney. Ask people in this audience that I’ve worked with and that know me, I don’t think anyone connects better than I do with a lot of folks around this state and around the country. … “[L]et’s take somebody who is real low in the polls. I – you can pick a name. Does that mean they don’t connect with people? … Who is the lowest right now? Maybe someone like Rick Santorum is low in the polls. Does he connect with people? Absolutely. He’s a terrific guy. … [J]ust looking at polls doesn’t say who connects and who doesn’t.”
So is Gingrich dangerous?
“Look, that’s not the word I would apply,” he replied. “I just don’t think he will be as effective in leading the country or in defeating President Obama as I would be. … [O]f the people on the stage, any one of them would be better … than our current president. … And so, I’m not going to say outrageous things that can be used to hang them down the road if they happen to become the nominee.”
Nevertheless, Romney said he stood by the tough charges his official surrogates have made against Gingrich, including former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who has questioned the former speaker’s intellect and fitness for office. “I will not distance myself at all from the experiences that those people have had,” Romney replied. “Those who are associated with my campaign, I think, have held back their comments so as not to be over-the-top.”
Asked if adultery is fair game in going after Gingrich, Romney at first replied, “I’m not going to tell the American people what they should look at in a candidate.” Pressed on whether he would rule it out as a topic for himself or his campaign, he replied: “We have no plans to [raise it] at this point.
Claiming he would be as tough on Obama as Gingrich would, Romney said: “There are times when people want to hear the most outrageous and inflammatory rhetoric and it’s very exciting. … But I’m going to go after him on his record day in and day out. The fact is he’s failed. His is a failed presidency. He’s been a bystander president.”
Romney said he thinks he “would be more successful in posting up against Barack Obama” than Gingrich, but did not rule out the possibility that Gingrich could beat Obama.
“I think having a person whose leadership has shown a degree of care, caution, careful thought … in the way that he expresses his views on important issues, that’s an important quality in taking on [Obama],” Romney said. “Anyone [in the GOP field] could potentially win [against Obama]. There’s always a shot, but I think that the odds are best for me. And if I didn’t think I was the right person to lead the country and to defeat Barack Obama, I wouldn’t be in this race.
“If I thought someone else could do a better job – I mean, I’ve said before, if [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush were running and in this race, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in. … I think he would have been an excellent president. … It was very clear he was not getting in.”
Romney’s staff says he’s running a two-track strategy – trying to neutralize Gingrich while continuing to hammer Obama.
“He actually did me a big favor,” Romney said. “Last night on ’60 Minutes,’ the president … said that to fix this economy is going to take another president. He’s right. I’m that other president. To fix this economy is going to take someone who understands how America works, and I’m going to put America to work again.”
Romney tried to brush off questions about the $10,000 bet he offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the Iowa debate Saturday night. “It’s a very common thing to say, ‘I’ll bet you a million bucks that …’ you know, ‘Your car is slower than mine.’ Does that mean you’re really planning on exchanging a million dollars? No. When somebody makes an outrageous charge, you respond with an outrageous response.”
As to whether gambling is immoral, he replied: “I let people make their own choices.”