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The Republican nominating contest has come down to a two-man race - Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich. And with Gingrich surging to the front of the pack, Romney is going on the offensive.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: With only 26 days until the Iowa caucuses, Romney's attack plan looks like all-out war. Newt Gingrich's record is what you'd have to call a target-rich environment and the Romney campaign is aiming at lots of targets. Their first shots were fired by people who know Gingrich well and can testify to his history of behavior destructive to the Republican Party.
Here's Jim Talent, the Missouri senator who served in the House with Gingrich.
JIM TALENT: 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. I say that with reluctance, as a person who had the speaker as my leader for four years in the 1990s, but it's because of that experience that I say it.
Now, Speaker Gingrich says interesting and insightful things. He can explain them well on many occasions. He also says 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.
LIASSON: Then, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu joined in. The off-the-cuff remarks Gingrich makes, said Sununu, reflect Gingrich's off-the-cuff thinking and Gingrich's irrational behavior. Here's Sununu on MSNBC.
JOHN SUNUNU: I believe Newt Gingrich is a Gingrichite. All he cares about is Newt Gingrich.
LIASSON: And that wasn't all. Romney himself appeared in ad this week touting his 42-year marriage, an indirect but not too subtle reference to Gingrich's three marriages, two of them preceded by adulterous affairs.
The one line of attack the Romney camp appears to have discarded is their earlier charge that Gingrich is a career politician. Maybe because it's a line that can backfire. Here's how Gingrich handled it on Monday in New York.
NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I don't know that you ought to count running for the Senate in 1994, running for governor, then running for president for six years. I mean, I don't know if that makes him a career politician or not. I'll let you decide. It's fair to say I've been a successful candidate a number of times.
LIASSON: Beyond those remarks, Gingrich says he plans to stay positive.
Until recently, Romney looked like he was on a glide path to the nomination, as one challenger after another tried to consolidate the sizable anti-Romney sentiment in the party but failed. Then Gingrich came along and didn't just challenge Romney, he surged right past him. Gingrich is now leading in polls nationally and in every early primary state except New Hampshire.
While Gingrich lacks the money and organization that Romney has, he comes across as authentic. And Republicans seem to willing, at least for now, to look beyond all of Gingrich's considerable baggage. Romney, on the other hand, has never made a visceral connection with his party's base and conservatives view him with suspicion.
Recent head-to-head matchups show Gingrich doing almost as well against President Obama as Romney. That undermines Romney's claim that he is best able to beat Mr. Obama next fall. But Senator Talent thinks those hypothetical match-ups are misleading.
TALENT: If Mitt Romney is the nominee, the election is going to be about Obama's failed policies, and we have an excellent chance to win and then do what needs to be done. If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want.
LIASSON: And that's not just Romney campaign spin. The Obama campaign does prefer to run against Gingrich. Today, one of the most important figures in the Democratic Party tried to help.
Bill Clinton, never one to miss a chance to skewer his Republican opponents by giving them a big hug, told CNN that Gingrich was resilient and full of ideas. As for Mitt Romney, he has yet join the latest anti-Gingrich offensive. But he'll have a chance to do that very soon. The two rivals will be on stage together Saturday night at a GOP debate in Iowa.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.