NEW YORK — Mitt Romney turned his guns Thursday on rival Newt Gingrich in a first hint of what analysts see as potential panic in the former Republican frontrunner’s campaign to win his party’s presidential nomination.
Until now, Romney has concentrated fire on President Barack Obama, but largely spared fellow Republican contenders. In an unruly and mostly lightweight field, that strategy allowed Romney to bolster his aura of near inevitability.
Latest polls, though, demolish that aura, with Gingrich surging and Romney forced to open a second front.
A new Romney TV ad set to air in the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire deals a backhanded blow at Gingrich, who has married three times and admitted to extra-marital affairs, by heavily emphasizing Romney’s own four decades of stable marriage.
“I’m a man of steadiness and constancy,” Romney says in the family values video. “I don’t think you’re going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do.”
Together with a new blog titled “With friends like Newt, who needs the left?” Romney appears ready to get off his pedestal and down on the mat right on the eve of initial nominating contests where a string of wins for either of the leading candidates could prove decisive.
Polling data shows he has not a moment to lose.
The latest opinion poll from Quinnipiac University, released Thursday, showed Gingrich not only doing well against Romney but also in a matchup against Obama, a Democrat.
In the crucial swing state of Florida, Romney led Obama by 45 percent to 42 percent, while the president led Gingrich, but only by two points — 46 percent to 44 percent.
In Ohio, often the difference between winning and losing a presidential election, Romney and Gingrich both led Obama by an identical 43 percent to 42 percent margin.
And in Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Obama, the president led Romney by 46 percent to 43 percent and Gingrich by a more comfortable, but hardly overwhelming, eight percent.
“Our swing state poll found Gingrich could win the general election,” Doug Schwartz, director of the poll, told a panel in New York. “Gingrich is the momentum candidate.”
Election watchers say Romney, who is preferred by the Republican establishment but failing to strike a chord with rank-and-file party members, will now come out fighting.
“I think there’s some potential panic in the Romney camp, seeing what they see,” Eric Shawn, from Fox News, told the panel discussion. “I think in order for him to survive, he will go after Gingrich. He will have to.”
Romney can expect some back-up in that offensive, Shawn noted — from Republicans bitter at Gingrich, who carries a lot of baggage from his tumultuous time as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s.
“You’ll see guns blazing after Newt Gingrich who in a lot of ways has not made a lot of friends,” he said.
John Heilemann, author of “Game Change,” an account of Obama’s stunning rise to power in 2008, told the panel that Gingrich stands a chance to knock Romney right out of the race if the early primaries go his way.
The Romney camp’s “nightmare scenario” is Gingrich winning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and then either Florida or South Carolina. “Even the Romney people believe it will be very hard to go on,” Heilemann said.
While the White House likely hopes for a bruising Romney-Gingrich internal battle before the general election, it’s not impossible that the two could eventually bury the hatchet and join on the same ticket, said George Stephanopoulos, co-anchor on ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”
“It might seem the only thing to make sense,” he said.