Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign kicked off its offensive against Newt Gingrich in earnest on Thursday, deploying surrogates who accused the former House Speaker of being "not a reliable or trustworthy" conservative.
The Romney campaign pivoted from its singular focus on President Obama to instead undermine Gingrich, who's surged in the polls and has emerged as Romney's most direct obstacle to the nomination.
In an interview on MSNBC, following a conference call with reporters, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu laid out the Romney campaign's case against Gingrich in two neat sentences.
"I don't think Newt Gingrich cares about conservative principles. He cares about Newt Gingrich," Sununu said.
The interview and conference call were part of a coordinated effort by the Romney campaign to begin to create contrast with the surging Gingrich, both on specific issues -- in this case, Medicare reform -- and on leadership style. They came amidst an email blitz from the Romney campaign, which included touting new endorsements in Romney's backyard of New Hampshire, to Gingrich's neighborhood. Tennesee.
On the call, former Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO), who served in the house under Gingrich, said he was speaking out against Gingrich "reluctantly" but that "the stakes are too high" for him not to weigh in.
Talent, who began the call by highlighting Gingrich's opposition to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-WI) Medicare plan as "right wing social engineering," said that Gingrich was "not a reliable or trustworthy leader," and "also says outrageous things" that undermine the conservative agenda.
Sununu, who served as President George H. W. Bush's chief of staff when Gingrich was a rising star on the hill, was even more harsh in his critique, saying Gingrich's comments on the Ryan plan were "the most self-serving thing you could imagine," and highlighted his penchant for "self aggrandizement"
Asked about whether Newt's leadership style made him unsuitable to be commander-in-chief, Sununu drew on his experience with Bush, as someone who "understood the depth of analysis required" to be commander-in-chief, made him certain Governor Romney was more qualified for that position.
"The off-the-cuff comments are a reflection of [Gingrich's] off the cuff thinking and you do not want that in the commander-in-chief," he said.
Asked on the conference call whether Gingrich's sometimes tumultuous personal life raised concerns as well, the Romney backers did not engage.
"That's not what we're here to talk about," Talent said, before calling for the final question.