His campaign suffering, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is calling for Mitt Romney to urge his allies to stop an onslaught of attack ads, a demand the former Massachusetts governor is dismissing as the two rivals spar from a distance over negative commercials that are shaping the race two weeks before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.
The tiff was likely to continue Wednesday as Gingrich, picking up endorsements from legislative leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Romney, on a bus tour of New Hampshire, worked to fit in as much glad-handing with voters as possible before taking a weekend break for the Christmas holiday.
"I don't object to being outspent. I object to lies. I object to negative smear campaigns," Gingrich, the former House speaker, said Tuesday, suggesting that Romney was being less than truthful when he claimed there was nothing he could do about hard-hitting spots coming from an independent group made up of staffers from his 2008 campaign. "Understand, these are his people running his ads, doing his dirty work while he pretends to be above it."
"I think these guys hire consultants who get drunk, sit around and write stupid ads," a fired-up Gingrich said. "Every one of these candidates should take responsibility for the lies they are putting up."
Earlier Tuesday, Romney, in an appearance on MSNBC, said super PACs have been "a disaster." But he refused to urge the group Restore Our Future to halt the attacks on Gingrich, saying the law prohibits coordination between his campaign and such groups. And he pointedly declined to disavow the ads.
"I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form," Romney said. "If we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house."
Hours later, Gingrich read Romney's remarks to reporters and then promptly labeled them "baloney." Said Gingrich, "His comments are palpably misleading, clearly false and are politics at its worst form."
The standoff over negative ads comes as Gingrich's position has slid in Iowa and elsewhere after the Romney-aligned super PAC and others, including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, have blanketed the airwaves with ads casting Gingrich as a Washington insider who profited on his name after leaving office. The ads have knocked Gingrich off message just as he's seeking to make his closing argument to Iowa voters ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses.
With Gingrich flailing, Romney focused on President Barack Obama, delivering a speech Tuesday in which he accused Obama of deepening the economic crisis and backing policies that will redistribute wealth instead of creating equal opportunity for people to do well.
Polls show Romney, Gingrich and Paul in contention for the lead in Iowa and elsewhere.
Paul, the blunt-spoken Texas congressman, plans to campaign Wednesday in Iowa, along with other candidates in the field. With less than two weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the race remains unpredictable, as voters weigh electability against conservative credentials.
Jenny Turner, a 31-year-old wedding videographer from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, summed it up this way: "My heart is with Newt. But Mitt Romney is the back of my mind."
The bickering over negative ads has highlighted the role of so-called super PACs, independent groups which may accept unlimited donations but are not supposed to directly coordinate with candidates. Such groups have sprung up to work on behalf of every serious Republican candidate in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that allowed people, unions and corporations to donate unlimited sums of money to outfits advocating the election or defeat of candidates.
In their spat Tuesday, both Gingrich and Romney decried the campaign finance system. Romney has labeled the system a "disaster"; Gingrich calls it "a nightmare." But both benefit from super PACs.
Two pro-Gingrich groups recently have started raising money, and Gingrich's longtime aide Rick Tyler just signed on with one of them.
Romney's supporters, however, have had a year-long head start in raising money. Restore Our Future is slated to spend roughly $3 million on ads, most of which paint Gingrich as an ethically-challenged Washington power broker. The onslaught has chipped away at Gingrich's poll numbers in the state and elsewhere.
Gingrich, who trails Romney badly in fundraising after a campaign implosion this year, said he would disavow any group that runs negative ads on his behalf.
In a sign of his fundraising and organizational deficiencies, Gingrich was rushing later Wednesday to Virginia, which the former Georgia congressman now calls home, to help ensure he has the needed signatures to get on the ballot in the state.
Hunt reported from New Hampshire.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.