By CHARLES BABINGTON
CLEVELAND — Newt Gingrich, suddenly in danger of losing his perch as Mitt Romney’s strongest GOP challenger, is fine-tuning his presidential campaign to place more emphasis on raising money, guarding his home turf and trying to avoid nasty quarrels with the front-runner.
Rick Santorum’s stunning success in this week’s elections in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri has fueled his claim that he, not Gingrich, is best qualified to rally conservatives who feel Romney is too moderate and unreliable.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, again faces a dilemma that has dogged him for much of the election. Should he show his feistier, meaner side at the risk of turning off voters who want pragmatic solutions more than expressions of anger? Or should he use a tamer, high-minded tone and risk losing economically anxious, resentful Republicans such as those who handed him his only victory, in South Carolina?
His aide R.C. Hammond said Gingrich favors the second option, at least for now.
“We need to go hard at demonstrating we are the one campaign of leadership,” Hammond said in an interview in Cleveland, where Gingrich spoke Wednesday without mentioning Santorum, Romney or his own poor showing in Tuesday’s voting.
Gingrich wants to avoid the harsh personal exchanges with Romney that have sometimes dominated the Republican campaign, Hammond said, and he wants to show he’s a better choice than Santorum by letting voters compare their records.
Gingrich plans few public appearances in the coming week, and none in highly competitive states. He will speak at a major convention of conservatives in Washington on Friday. He plans to spend Monday through Wednesday in California, mixing a few public events with eight fundraisers, Hammond said.
On Feb. 17 and 18, Gingrich will campaign in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years ending in 1998. He needs to win Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma in the March 6 “Super Tuesday” primary, and either win Ohio or come close. Six other states, including some small ones and Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, are voting that day.
Gingrich has vowed to stay positive before, only to abruptly attack Romney, the “elite media” and other targets, with mixed results. Gingrich’s criticisms of Romney’s Bain Capital record and Cayman Island investments fell flat with many GOP audiences, and he dropped them. But Gingrich’s acid rebukes of reporters in two South Carolina debates, plus a strong response to Romney’s attack ads, helped him revive his campaign after a steep drop in Iowa.
Many GOP insiders are dubious that the tempestuous Gingrich can stay positive for long. And some question whether he can win by doing so, given Romney’s big advantages in money and organization.
Whatever his long-term intentions are, Gingrich went out of his way Wednesday to accentuate the positive at the Jergens metal manufacturing plant in Cleveland.
Saying Washington needs wholesale change, Gingrich told workers: “It’s a lot more than just beating Barack Obama. It’s developing a positive program that allows us to create jobs, a positive program that allows us to produce energy, a positive program that allows us to fix Social Security.”
Hammond said Gingrich repeatedly cites his work with President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, plus his “big ideas” for initiatives like space exploration, to show he has the experience and vision to lead the nation to more robust, prosperous times.
“We need to build up our momentum again to roll over Romney,” Hammond said. He said Tuesday’s elections proved that Romney will have great trouble securing the nomination.
Countless Republicans will reject that view, of course. And even if Romney does falter, Santorum’s allies say it’s the former Pennsylvania senator who has earned the right to be the conservative alternative.
Gary Lacara of Fairview, Texas, said either Gingrich or Santorum should drop out so conservatives can consolidate behind one candidate who can beat Romney.
“I really like Gingrich personally, but my head says Gingrich has to get out,” said Lacara, 57, who attended a recent Santorum rally in Allen, Texas. The state’s primary is set for April 3.
Neither Gingrich nor Hammond gave any hints Wednesday that Gingrich will attack Santorum more energetically than before. In three Ohio campaign stops on Tuesday, Gingrich’s few mentions of his rival from Pennsylvania generally focused on Santorum’s complaints that Gingrich’s space exploration plans are too costly.
Gingrich’s top advisers recently huddled for several days in Las Vegas. They concluded that Romney’s flaws, including what many perceive as his being dodgy and untrustworthy, would eventually drag him down, said one participant, who would speak only on background because the meetings were private. Now that Romney’s “inevitability” has been fractured even earlier than expected, the adviser said, Republicans will scrutinize Santorum and Gingrich as bona fide possibilities to face Obama.
Gingrich’s advisers say they believe the former speaker will fare better because he has more ambitious ideas and a stronger ties to GOP accomplishments of the past three decades than does Santorum.
Of course, Gingrich also has a legacy of ethical problems and feuding with lawmakers in both parties, as Romney noted in his many TV attack ads in Iowa and Florida.
Hammond said voters are drawn to Gingrich’s “statesmanship” qualities. That doesn’t prevent Gingrich from denouncing Obama in condescending tones, calling him “the best food stamp president” in U.S. history.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican who backs Gingrich, says there is risk in veering too far to the nice-guy side.
“What would the results in South Carolina have been if he didn’t fight back?” Gingrey said. “I say don’t hold anything back. He needs to do what he needs to do to win.”
Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey in Georgia and Brian Bakst in Texas contributed to this report.