GOP candidates proceed carefully in presidential race

Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at a town hall style event in the Staten Island borough of New York Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

December 3, 2011 2:49:48 PM PST
The once-bursting 2012 Republican presidential field is narrowing to a two-man race, and GOP voters have one month before casting the first votes to winnow it to one. Barring a dramatic new turn, their chief options will be the steady but often bland demeanor of Mitt Romney and the idea-a-minute bombast of Newt Gingrich.

Herman Cain's suspension of his campaign Saturday and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's continued struggles to regain traction have focused the party's attention on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, the former House speaker. They offer striking contrasts in personality, government experience and campaign organization, with Gingrich having only a scant infrastructure in the early voting states.

At a town hall meeting in New York sponsored by tea party supporters, Gingrich declined to characterize the race as a direct contest between himself and Romney. Any of the remaining GOP contenders could stage a comeback before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich said, just as he had after his campaign nearly imploded last summer.

"I'm not going to say that any of my friends can't suddenly surprise us," Gingrich said, noting that Texas Rep. Ron Paul has a strong organization in Iowa and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is an Iowa native.

"This thing could have 2 or 3 more cycles between here and figuring out who is actually in the final round," Gingrich said. "I don't want to preclude any of them from having an opportunity to rebound just as I was able to rebound after virtually all the national news media assumed I was dead."

Gingrich also praised Cain for bringing optimism and "big ideas" to the campaign.

"He had the courage to launch the 9-9-9 plan which, whether you liked it or disliked it, was a big idea and started to elevate the debate toward big solutions and not the usual nitpicking, consultant-driven negativity," Gingrich said.

Their political philosophies and differences between Gingrich and Romney are a bit harder to tease out. Both men have reversed some previous positions, and Gingrich in particular is known to veer into unusual territories, such as child labor practices.

If Romney, who was seen as the likeliest nominee from the start, feels Gingrich breathing down his neck, he didn't show it Saturday as he campaigned in New Hampshire. The state's Jan. 10 primary follows the Iowa caucus by one week.

Romney repeatedly turned aside reporters' invitations to light into Gingrich, offering only gentle critiques while aiming much sharper remarks at President Barack Obama. Whereas Gingrich, with typical swagger, recently declared himself the nominee, Romney said the contest is far from decided.

"I don't think people have really settled down, in a final way, to decide who they're going to support in the nomination process," he told reporters in Manchester, where he held a rally and knocked on a few doors. "I hope they give us a good, careful look."

That was about as much emotion and daring as Romney showed all day. With the second-tier candidates ramping up their criticisms of Gingrich lately, he stuck to his steady-as-she-goes campaign style of criticizing Obama's economic record, and saying little else.

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