AMES, Iowa -- As he struggles to eke out a top-three finish in Tuesday's Iowa caucus, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich launched one of his harshest attacks yet on front-runner Mitt Romney, saying the former Massachusetts governor would "buy an election if he could."
As he was leaving a campaign event, the former House speaker was asked by journalists about a report that he, earlier in the day, had accused Romney of attempting to buy votes. Gingrich replied, "No, I didn't say he was. I said he would if he could. ... He would buy an election if he could."
Gingrich said he was referring to the negative ads that a PAC backing Romney is running against him in Iowa, and said that the ad buys could total $3.5 million. Gingrich's comments came as he and his wife, Callista, left the West Towne Pub en route to his next campaign event.
Romney was asked for his response by a National Journal/CBS reporter traveling with his campaign. He did not address the ads, but noted that Gingrich has raised a lot of money as a candidate. "He anounced that he raised 10 million this quarter, and he ought to be proud of that. ... This is an election, however, that's not being driven by money raised. It's being driven by message connection with the voters, debate and experience."
Gingrich has vowed to stay "positive" in his quest for the GOP nomination, but has been increasingly on the attack against Romney as his poll numbers have declined, mainly in response to the barrage of negative ads purchased by groups supporting Romney, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and other of his rivals. A super PAC calling itself Restore Our Future and run by former Romney aides has spent nearly $3 million on ads in Iowa.
Accusing Romney of trying to "buy votes" serves Gingrich's purpose of portraying his rival as an elitist, calling attention to his background as a wealthy former investment banker at Bain Capital. But it comes with some risk for the former lawmaker, who himself made millions after leaving Congress by trading on his influence in Republican political circles in Washington.
At a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, Gingrich acknowledged that the negative ad blizzard hurt his campaign and "drove me from the 30s to the teens" in the polls. He said of Romney, "Somebody who will lie to you to be president will lie to you as president."
The former long-time House member also confirmed what several polls have shown: that conservatives, despite their dominance in Iowa's Republican politics, are divided among rival candidates.
"If you combine (former U.S. Sen. Rick) Santorum, (Texas Gov. Rick) Perry and (Rep. Michele) Bachmann and me, compare it to the Romney numbers, it's overwhelming that the conservative base of the party is still there," Gingrich said. "And Gov. Romney remains basically a Massachusetts moderate. He's not broken out despite spending millions of dollars."
But Gingrich failed to acknowledge a simple fact of Romney's advantage in Iowa right now, even in spite of a base of support that is little improved since 2008, when he first ran for president, according to a Des Moines Register poll published on Saturday. This time, conservatives do not seem to be coalescing around a single candidate, as they did around former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago, which could allow Romney to win with a plurality.
Sarah B. Boxer contributed to this story.