NEWPORT, N.H. — Mitt Romney, back atop the GOP field in the latest Rasmussen Reports poll in Iowa, kicked off his "Earn It" bus tour here on Wednesday with another jab at Republican rival Newt Gingrich, who has been sharply criticizing the former Massachusetts governor's "negative" campaigning.
"This is politics. If you can't stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until the Obama hell's kitchen turns up the heat," Mr. Romney said - first during an appearance on Fox News and then during a campaign stop in Keene.
Mr. Gingrich fired back, saying he can handle the heat and would be "happy" to "test this kitchen."
"Go back and ask Gov. Romney, would he like to come and play in the kitchen? I don't think so. I don't think he wants to do anything except hide over here and pretend it's not his fault that he is flooding the people of Iowa with falsehoods," Mr. Gingrich said, referring to ads being run by the Restore Our Future PAC, which is allowed to accept unlimited contributions and is run by former Romney aides.
The bus tour and spat between the top GOP contenders come just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nomination contest on Jan. 3. They also coincide with polls that suggest that the anti-Gingrich ads - also coming out of the Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry camps - are taking a toll on the Georgia Republican's White House bid.
A Rasmussen survey released Wednesday showed that the former House speaker, who surged to the front of the pack in recent weeks, has dropped to third in Iowa. Polls also show his support slipping in New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10.
With the press giving the early nomination contests so much attention, results likely will have an outsized effect on the race, and political observers say the latest polls could spell trouble for Mr. Gingrich, who has instructed his staff not to initiate negative attacks against his GOP rivals.
On Wednesday, the two men also responded in vastly different ways when asked about the deadlock on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans and Senate Democrats are battling over extending a 2 percentage points payroll-tax holiday - a high-stakes fight that could result in higher taxes on most American households.
Mr. Romney refused to weigh in on the fight, saying he would not become involved in the "congressional sausage-making process," but hoped lawmakers would work toward a solution that includes an extension of the payroll-tax holiday.
Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, dove in, calling the two-month extension proposed by the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama insufficient.
"They can't figure out how to pass a one-year extension, so the Senate leaves town?" he said while in Iowa, according to the Associated Press.
Both men received noteworthy endorsements as well Wednesday, with Mr. Gingrich snagging the support of New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien and Mr. Romney winning the backing of Jennifer Horn, a conservative activist and two-time congressional candidate in the Granite State.
Four years ago, Mr. Romney's lead in New Hampshire evaporated in the final weeks of the campaign. Many political observers said it was a result of focusing so much time and money - $10 million - on winning the Iowa caucuses. He went on to lose Iowa to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New Hampshire to John McCain, the party's eventual nominee - essentially ending his campaign.
This time, the Romney camp has tried to tamp down expectations in Iowa while concentrating most of its focus in New Hampshire, which supporters say is a must-win state if the former governor hopes to lead the party against President Obama in the 2012 election.
But a win here is no sure thing.
Mr. Gingrich has secured the endorsement of the Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, which has picked previous winners and holds sway in conservative circles. Mr. Paul, the congressman from Texas, has strengthened his support from his 2008 bid. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is starting to see gains after focusing almost all his attention on the state.
With that as a backdrop, Mr. Romney's three-day bus tour is taking him through old mill towns and rural working-class counties in a part of the state that locals refer to as a the "north country" - a thinly populated region with conservative leanings.
"Blizzards, hurricanes - they show up," Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman, said of the activists in the region. "Those voters are intense voters."
Patrick Griffin, senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said the "Earn It" bus tour was smart politics and good optics for Mr. Romney heading into the Christmas weekend.
"It sets a tone for the holiday that Romney is not taking anything for granted in New Hampshire," Mr. Griffin said.
With Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Gov. John H. Sununuand wife Ann Romney at his side Wednesday, Mr. Romney made four campaign stops across the state. He vowed to increase military spending while cutting federal spending. He also cast himself as a Washington outsider and reinforced his message that after spending 25 years working in the private sector and four years in government, he has developed the skills and know-how needed to get the nation's fiscal house in order.
"I intend to get America working like this company," Mr. Romney told about 100 employees at local manufacturer of plasma cutters in Hanover.
The bus tour rolls to a close Friday.
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