Since he declared his candidacy for president, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. As other, more popular Republicans declined to run and other candidates flamed out, his strategy of running a campaign against Obama instead of chipping away at his GOP rivals has so far proved effective.
Now campaign supporters say that despite a surge by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and continued threats from his right flank by his GOP nomination rivals, Romney should stick to his guns and keep hammering at the president while largely ignoring the Republican field.
"It will be a challenge to keep that single-mindedness, but he would be well-served if he could do it. It's working," says Christopher Rants, former Iowa House speaker and now Chicago-based lobbyist and consultant. "Keep the focus on who it is you are really trying to defeat in the election and that's Obama."
Rants, who supported Romney in 2008 and just recently announced his support for him again this year, says the economy is Romney's winning issue, a lesson learned from his earlier presidential campaign.
After Democrats launched a television advertisement mocking Romney for changing position on issues, the Republican's campaign spent all day Monday rebutting the claims. Supporters in states across the country held conference calls with reporters to attack President Obama's handling of the economy.
However, about a month away from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the question is whether or not Romney can truly win the nomination with a strategy of ignoring his opponents.
Conservatives who have long been skeptical of Romney's positions on issues such as abortion, climate change, gay marriage and health care have spent the early primary season searching for an alternative. Gingrich is the latest "anyone but Romney" candidate, surging in some recent national polls ahead of the former governor. Over the weekend, Gingrich also scored the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's biggest newspaper.
But even in the face of a seasoned opponent and a ticking clock, experts say Romney's best bet is to stay the course.
"In a place like Iowa, he tried to get to the right and woo the social conservatives four years ago and it didn't go well," Rants says. "He's not going to take any away from somebody over gay marriage or abortion. It doesn't serve Mitt to engage in that."
Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said a recent state poll showed Romney maintaining his lead and also cautioned against changing tactics.
"If he's smart, he'll stay focused," he says. "What we're seeing here in New Hampshire is that Gingrich is just the latest in a series of people who bumped up into second place but nobody has been able to solidify."
He adds that Gingrich did get "some good mileage" out of the newspaper endorsement, but that Romney has "all of the things going for him that you would hope for."
Smith says the recent UNH poll showed GOP voters, in addition to widely supporting Romney, naming him most likely to win the nomination and defeat President Obama in 2012.
Steve Grubbs is a former Iowa state representative and chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa who signed up in October with the Herman Cain campaign. He says Romney's campaign showed some signs of changing tactics over the weekend by choosing to attack Gingrich over his stance on immigration policy.
"(It) shows that he considers Gingrich a real threat and obviously he's got some vulnerabilities of his own on that issue," Grubbs says.
Grubbs adds that despite the fact that the Romney campaign has tried to keep Iowa performance expectations low, he expects they will do well.
"Romney, has been doing his sort of rope-a-dope strategy—bouncing off the ropes the last few rounds and now coming out swinging," he says. "He's got an organization that's five years old, it's got a good ground organization, he's got two of the best political guys in the state running his operation, so I would expect that Romney will certainly be right up there and should be expected to be a leader in this thing."
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