DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney taunted his main Republican presidential rival Newt Gingrich on Wednesday after arriving in Iowa ahead of the crucial first vote in the 2012 White House race.
Latest polling indicates Gingrich’s popularity slipping in the run up to the January 3 Iowa caucuses after a barrage of millions of dollars of negative advertising from Romney’s slick campaign machine.
Romney, a 64-year-old former Massachusetts governor, is gaining ground and a win here would make him very hard to beat if, as expected, he goes on to claim victory in the second contest on January 10 in the state of New Hampshire.
Gingrich, a former House speaker who has unexpectedly surged to the front of the Republican pack, had hit out angrily on Tuesday at attacks from Romney’s “millionaire friends” and challenged him to take him on face-to-face.
But Romney was unapologetic, in particular for a jibe mocking Gingrich’s inability to get on the ballot in Virginia by likening him to a comedy sketch character who becomes overwhelmed by a rapid assembly-line of candies.
“You know, I hope the speaker understands that was humor and I’m happy to tell my humorous anecdote to him face-to-face and look forward to seeing him,” Romney told Fox News.
The longtime national frontrunner for the Republican nomination pointed out that he had already debated Gingrich and the other candidates about a dozen times and that two more debates were scheduled for January.
“If it comes down to this, the two of us, at some point we will debate person to person. But right now, there are a bunch of folks that are still in the race. Newt and I are not necessarily number one and number two across the nation.”
The latest Iowa poll showed Ron Paul — considered highly unlikely to be the eventual Republican nominee due to his staunchly libertarian views — with a 24 percent to 20 percent lead over Romney.
Gingrich, who held a clear lead only a few weeks ago, trailed in third and had only 13 percent of the vote, narrowly ahead of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann on 11 percent, according to the Public Policy Polling survey.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum were both credited with 10 percent support with former Utah governor and Chinese ambassador Jon Huntsman way back on just four percent.
Whoever claims the Republican nomination earns the right to take on a vulnerable President Barack Obama in the November 2012 general election.