10:31 am Dec. 8, 2011
This morning, Mitt Romney's campaign convened a conference call with former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and former senator Jim Talent of Missouri to talk about former speaker Newt Gingrich.
"The speaker is running as a reliable and trusted conservative leader and what we're here to say, with reluctance, but clearly, is that he's not a reliable and trusted conservative leader, because he's not a reliable or trustworthy leader," said Talent, who served in the House under during Gingrich's tenure as speaker.
The call was the Romney campaign's first official deployment of surrogates against Gingrich, whose sudden rise in the polls—he leads by double digits in Iowa and in Florida—has threatened the seeming inevitability of Romney's nomination and led the candidate to dispense with some of his calculated caution.
The call adds Sununu and Talent to an unofficial chorus of Gingrich critics initially led by local Republicans Guy (and Susan) Molinari and Representative Pete King, and which now also includes Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who talked about the former speaker over the weekend.
"Speaker Gingrich says interesting and insightful things," said Talent. "He can explain them well on many occasions. He also says outrageous things that come from nowhere, and he has a tendency to say them at exactly the time when they most undermine the conservative agenda. That's why Suzy Molinari has said what she said about him, and that's why Pete King has, and Tom Coburn has. And that's why we're here today."
Talent and Sununu focused their criticism on Gingrich's comments on "Meet the Press" earlier this year, when he branded Paul Ryan's budget plan "right-wing social engineering," while Republicans were trying to rally popular support for the plan.
"For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to try and make him sound a little smarter than the conservative Republican leadership, to undercut Paul Ryan, is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening," said Sununu. "He gave the liberals and the Democrats the ammunition they needed to moot, if you will, at least for the time being, Paul Ryan's presentation."
Sununu said it was also "a perfect example of irrational behavior that you do not want in the Commander in Chief."
Talent, who repeatedly expressed his reluctance about playing the role of public critic, recalled dealing with the same problems when Gingrich was speaker.
"We were in a situation where you would get up every morning and you would have to check the newspapers or the clippings—that was before the internet—to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district," Talent said.
With less than a month until the first votes are cast in Iowa, the surrogates tried to spin Romney's relative blandness into a positive for the party.
"The election is going to be about, if Romney is the nominee, Obama's failed policies," said Talent, "and we have an excellent chance to win and then do what needs to be done. If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want."