- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Saying President Obama is risking “the soul of America,” Mitt Romney kicked off his stretch run to Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses with his eyes squarely on the general election, even as the rest of the Republican presidential field took aim at one another.

Newt Gingrich, who said he couldn’t vote for fellow candidate Rep. Ron Paul for president, challenged Mr. Romney to a one-on-one debate and said the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t have the conservative credentials necessary to lead the party. Meanwhile, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said only that he has established a conservative campaign record while running statewide in a blue state.

Less than a week before the contest, the field is as unsettled as any in recent memory, with Mr. Paul now sitting atop the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls and Mr. Romney second, as Mr. Gingrich tumbles from the lead to third.

That shake-up has left Mr. Romney with the opportunity to look toward a general election matchup with Mr. Obama, even as he and the rest of the field search for support in the first-in-the-nation contest.

“This is an election not only to replace a president. It is an election to save the soul of America. It is a choice between two destinies,” Mr. Romney said Tuesday evening in Davenport, Iowa, as he told voters to compare the promises that Mr. Obama made as a candidate in 2007 in the same Iowa city with the record he amassed as president.

“He promised to bring people together. He promised to change the broken system in Washington. He promised to do away with gridlock. He promised to repair the nation,” Mr. Romney said. “He closed with these words: ‘This is our moment; this is our time.’ Well, Mr. President, you have now had your moment. We have seen the results. And now, Mr. President, it is our time.”

Mr. Romney has been able to look past the Iowa field in part because of the topsy-turvy nature of the field. Mr. Paul is the sixth candidate to hold a lead here after Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota began to outpoll Mr. Romney in July, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took the lead from her around Labor Day, businessman Herman Cain ascended in mid-October and then surrendered the top spot to Mr. Gingrich in November.

Seeking to regain his footing, Mr. Gingrich on Tuesday challenged Mr. Romney to a two-man debate before the caucuses.

“Face-to-face,” Mr. Gingrich said in Dubuque as he kicked off his own final week of campaigning.

“I don’t want to be invidious about Gov. Romney, who — as I said — I think is a very competent manager and a very smart man. But to have somebody who is a Massachusetts moderate, who said he did not want to go back to the Reagan-Bush years, who voted as a Democrat for Paul Tsongas in ‘92, who campaigned to the left of Teddy Kennedy, who … said, ‘I’m really sort of a moderate, pragmatic guy’ — to have him run a commercial that questions my conservatism?” Mr. Gingrich said.

But the headwinds for the Georgia Republican continue to grow.

Early Tuesday, ABC reported on a document that showed the former House speaker had glowing praise for Mr. Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, including the individual mandate that everybody must purchase insurance. Later in the day, CNN reported that the papers from Mr. Gingrich’s first divorce contradict his claim that the divorce was mutually sought. In the papers, his first wife asked a judge to reject the divorce, saying she thought the couple could reconcile.

Meanwhile, in a CNN interview Mr. Gingrich said he couldn’t vote for Mr. Paul because of “racist, anti-Semitic” comments in a newsletter published under Mr. Paul’s auspices.

Mr. Paul has announced a three-day campaign swing from the center of the state to the west from Wednesday through Friday, but the rest of the field is already in Iowa.

Mrs. Bachmann had scheduled 10 stops in Iowa’s southwest for Tuesday, continuing her own 99-county tour, while Mr. Perry held four events that took him from the western border over to the middle of Iowa.

The only candidate competing in Iowa who has never held the lead in polls is Mr. Santorum, who has arguably spent more time campaigning in the state than anyone else, and says he has made 350 stops covering all 99 counties.

Speaking in Fort Dodge, Mr. Santorum told voters Tuesday that he is the only candidate who has proved he can win statewide while running as a conservative. He also said that based on the calls his campaign is making to test support, he sees room to gain momentum over the final week.

“We’re finding actually a little over half of the people — it’s about, almost, 60 percent — still say that they haven’t decided on a candidate yet,” he said. “That means those who can go out and work for us here in this last week, you can have a huge impact.”

Also hoping to have an impact here is the Occupy movement, which disrupted cities across the country late this year and which the Associated Press reported is vowing to interrupt the candidates’ campaign events.

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