By KASIE HUNT and STEVE PEOPLES
BETHLEHEM, N.H. - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday spurned chief rival Newt Gingrich's challenge for a one-on-one debate ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses but dismissed the notion - suggested by the former House speaker - that he's afraid to participate in such a face-off.
"We've had many occasions to debate together and we'll have more, I presume quite a few more, before this is finished," Romney told The Associated Press. "But I'm not going to narrow this down to a two-person race while there are still a number of other candidates that are viable, important candidates in the race. I want to show respect to them."
Gingrich has called on Romney to condemn or defend attack ads airing in Iowa by groups friendly to the former Massachusetts governor. Campaigning Thursday in Virginia, Gingrich told reporters that Romney's decision "tells you a lot about Gov. Romney." Gingrich said he will continue to say that Romney "doesn't mind hiding out behind millions of dollars of negative ads, but he doesn't want to defend them. The ads are false."
Gingrich said he doesn't think Iowans will reward "falsehoods by millionaires."
In a brief interview aboard his campaign bus as it rumbled through New Hampshire, Romney reflected on the GOP nomination fight that's seen many candidates and non-candidates rise and fall in the polls. He mentioned Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and real estate magnate Donald Trump.
Asked whether Trump and Gingrich were of equal seriousness as presidential aspirants, Romney said: "I'm not going to get into that. It's up to you to make your own assessment."
Romney also distanced himself anew from the standoff in Washington between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-run White House over a two-month extension of a cut in payroll taxes.
"I really don't think it's productive for me to describe which of all of the compromises within the sausage-making process is my favorite compromise position," Romney said, adding that presidential candidates getting involved will only complicate the process, not help it.
"We have, what, eight people running for president?" Romney said. "The idea of us all running to Washington and trying to say to the various parties, 'Here's where I think you should go,' is not something which our party needs. It is not likely to be conducive to reaching a conclusion."
For weeks, Romney has refused to be pinned down on how Congress should break an impasse that threatens to raise taxes for 160 million workers - the latest pressing policy debate he has sidestepped. House Republicans have rejected a bipartisan compromise in the Senate that would have kept the tax cuts going for two months, and called instead for negotiations toward a one-year extension of the reduction.
Romney has suggested that any extension should last more than two months and ideally a year but also has said such details are "deep in the weeds."
Gingrich has condemned the notion of a two-month extension and suggested that Senate Republicans should have rejected it. Informed Thursday of Romney's remarks, Gingrich said: "If you're a candidate for president and you're not prepared to talk about the hottest issue right now which affects every single working American - there's a concept called leadership. And people sometimes think that I'm too aggressive, but at least I lead."
"I think there's a timidity of calculation," Gingrich said. "I suspect some candidates have had consultants say 'Oh, don't take any risks."'
Democrats are working to highlight how the payroll tax cut affects people. A family making $50,000 a year would lose about $19 per week if the tax cut isn't extended.
The White House has asked people to write in and say what the approximately $40 every two weeks means to them. Some said it would pay for medicine, family pizza night or new shoes.
What would Romney do with the $40? "Probably give it to my grandkids," he told the AP.
Romney said in the interview that, if elected, he would "sit down with the leaders in my party and the leaders in the opposition party and work to find some sort of common ground." He offered advice - and criticism - of the man he hopes to succeed, saying: "If the president would take a personal role in leading that process I think we'd have more prospects of it being successful."
Romney added: "It doesn't strike me that they're terribly far apart. I will be surprised if they can't get this resolved on a timely basis."
Starting his day in Richmond, Gingrich blamed Obama, saying the president "is the primary reason" for the impasse over the payroll tax cut. He said a two-month extension "makes no sense," and that the political squabbling makes the U.S. look like Italy.
In his typically bombastic style, Gingrich said everything Obama "believes in kills jobs." He said "Obama has a European radical attitude toward class warfare" and is "the best food stamp president."
"I studied history, and unlike the president, I studied American history," Gingrich told about 200 Republicans at a breakfast, where a key goal was gathering the signatures needed to qualify him for Virginia's March 6 ballot.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.