- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2011

BETHLEHEM, N.H. (AP) — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Thursday spurned a challenge from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, for a one-on-one debate in the run-up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, but he dismissed the notion, suggested by Mr. Gingrich, that he was afraid to participate in such a faceoff.

“We’ve had many occasions to debate together, and we’ll have more — I presume quite a few more — before this is finished,” Mr. 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.”

In a brief interview aboard his campaign bus as it rumbled through New Hampshire, Mr. Romney reflected on the a GOP nomination fight that’s seen many candidates and noncandidates alike rise and fall in polls. He mentioned Mr. Gingrich as well as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and real estate magnate Donald Trump.

Asked whether Mr. Trump and Mr. Gingrich were of equal seriousness as presidential aspirants, Mr. Romney said: “I’m not going to get into that. It’s up to you to make your own assessment.”

Mr. Romney also distanced himself anew from the standoff in Washington between the Republican-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,” Mr. Romney said, adding that presidential candidates getting involved only will complicate the process, not help it.

“We have, what, eight people running for president?” Mr. 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.”

He added, “We’re in the last few days before the Iowa caucuses, and I’m not going to leave my campaign, fly to Washington and spend a couple of weeks there negotiating something where there are already people elected to do that very job, that we expect to do so.”

It was an implied reference to Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, shutting down his campaign in the fall of that year during the financial crisis.

For weeks, Mr. Romney repeatedly 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, instead calling for negotiations toward a one-year extension.

But Mr. Romney has left open the terms for an extension. He has suggested it should last more than two months and ideally a year, but he has called such details “deep in the weeds.”

In the Thursday interview, Mr. Romney said that if he were president, 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 — as well as criticism — to 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.”

Mr. 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.”