CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- On the eve of a crucial debate in the Hawkeye State, Mitt Romney on Friday continued to highlight his differences with Newt Gingrich on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's budget blueprint that Gingrich blasted as "right-wing social engineering" before walking back his comments.
Gingrich's campaign quickly retaliated, sending out surrogates to argue that the former Massachusetts governor's decision to attack was a sign of desperation that would backfire.
"Speaker Gingrich and I have a very different view, for instance with regard to Paul Ryan's plan, and the need to fundamentally transform Medicare .... So we'll talk about those differences and I think in the final analysis, Americans will decide who can best lead our country at such a critical time," Romney told a town hall audience here.
His comment came on the heels of a scathing web ad from Romney's "super PAC" attacking Gingrich on the issue as well as two days of conference calls from boosters of the former Massachusetts governor. And that line of attack is likely to continue at Saturday's ABC-sponsored debate in Des Moines.
But the approach could falter if Democrats decide to follow their strategy of making the Ryan plan a central issue in the 2012 congressional and presidential races. The House Budget Committee chairman calls for revamping Medicare and transforming it into a voucher system, an approach Democrats are convinced will alienate older swing voters.
During the conference calls from Romney supporters on Friday, Mary Kramer -- a former Iowa state senator and U.S. ambassador to Barbados -- said that Romney "will never get derailed in such a way that he would embarrass us."
Another supporter, Iowa state Rep. Renee Schulte, added that Romney's "more disciplined approach is what we need in a president."
But there were signs that playing the attack dog still makes Romney uncomfortable. He refused to comment on the anti-Gingrich ad, and said of the supportive conference calls from his backers: "As for the comments of people who've supported me, I don't write the script for them."
Gingrich's backers, meanwhile, predicted that any negative ads would backfire in Iowa, where polls show the ex-Georgia congressman with a double-digit lead over Romney.
"What we're seeing from Mitt Romney and Boston is desperation and panic and I think that's going to be very frustrating to people moving forward," said Linda Upmeyer, Gingrich's Iowa chairwoman. "They don't want to see $3 million of attack ads -- believe me I get that feedback."
Former Iowa Rep. Greg Ganske echoed that sentiment: "I would have to say, where has Mitt been in Iowa? He basically was going to blow this state off until the Speaker rose in the polls, and now he's coming on with this huge $3 million buy attacking the Speaker. I think having been in politics, that is a very, very risky move."
Ganske also addressed the criticism of Gingrich's tenure as Speaker, saying that his friend has changed for the better since stepping down from that post and leaving Congress.
"I think in his time out of office he has had time to think about a lot of different things," Ganske said. "I think he's fundamentally a happier person than he was before."
Romney, who has taken heat for not spending as much time in Iowa as other candidates -- he had made four trips to the state since August -- vowed that he was committed to spending more time there. "As we get closer to the caucus time you're going to see more of me, more of my family, more of my ads," he said.
Romney also acknowledged the possibility of failure in speaking to reporters after the event. "I just happen to think that selection is going to ultimately come down to the question between the direction of the country and who is capable of leading the country at this critical time... I hope in that final analysis, I get chosen. If I'm not, I'll be disappointed, but not heartbroken; I love this country. I believe that the other Republicans are each good people."
Both Ganske and Upmeyer also sought to stress that their criticism of Romney's tactics wasn't a personal attack on Romney. "No campaign just lays down and allows and opponent to stab you in the heart," Ganske said. "I mean, it deserves a response."