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2012: The gloves come off

“During their first appearances in Iowa after the Christmas holiday, leading Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney had two different targets during a pair of appearances in the eastern part of the state,” the Boston Globe’s Johnson reports. “Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, reached out yesterday for the potent conservative Iowa caucus voting bloc with a battle cry for the soul of the GOP.”

The New York Times: “The Republican presidential candidates sharpened their criticism of Representative Ron Paul on Tuesday in an effort to keep his support from growing among voters who are frustrated with government and may be inclined to send a message to the Washington establishment by supporting him in the Iowa caucuses.”

The Washington Post: “The Republican presidential candidates opened an intensive week of campaigning in wide-open Iowa on Tuesday with the embattled Newt Gingrich casting rival Mitt Romney as an establishment defender of big government and accusing Romney’s supporters of lying about his record.”

BACHMANN: The Bachmann campaign removed the name of a South Carolina Democratic strategist from a list of the campaign’s grassroots supporters in South Carolina, NBC’s Ali Weinberg reports. The strategist said he had responded “yes” to an email solicitation from the Bachmann campaign asking him to support her efforts. 

GINGRICH: A pro-Gingrich Super PAC sent out a mailer in Iowa yesterday, labeling Romney the “second-most dangerous man in America,” NBC’s Alex Moe reports.

What Gingrich’s campaign workers in New Hampshire do in their spare time -- who doesn’t like a break-dancing elf?

ROMNEY: “Town & Country once pegged Mitt Romney for “weekends at the White House,” but not because of his 2008 or current presidential campaigns,” the Boston Globe says. “Instead, in its June 1967 issue, the magazine branded him a “serious chap” and swooned over his height and ‘dark hair and eyes’ as it put him on its list of ‘America’s most eligible young men.’ At the time, 20-year-old Willard Mitt Romney was the son of a presidential candidate, then-Michigan Governor George Romney.”

He wins the endorsement of the Boston Herald, which hasn’t always been in his corner. “Now we are more aware than most of our former governor’s reputation for being, well, a bit stiff. But this is a contest for what we used to call Leader of the Free World (before Barack Obama downgraded the job), not Mr. Congeniality or the guy you’d most like to have a beer with,” the Herald writes. “We don’t need a buddy in the White House; we need a leader — one who can work with a deeply divided Congress and a deeply divided nation.”

He disagreed with Gingrich yesterday on his stance on judges: “Romney said he would not allow Congress to subpoena judges to explain their rulings or to remove judges,” the Boston Globe writes. “‘Then we make a super branch known as Congress,’ Romney said. ‘We have a balance of power constitutionally, and I don’t want one branch, Congress, or even the president, to assume power above the other branches.’”

Romney was on FOX this morning, and echoing his closing argument started yesterday, he said of the 2012 election: “It’s an election about the soul of America.” On the primary and the report yesterday that Gingrich had expressed support for Romney’s health-care law in Massachusetts: “I knew that he supported the plan in the past … until he got into the race this year.” He said the plan “was right for our state” and was “based on conservative principles that came from Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation … I will do what’s right for the people I represent.”

Romney continued on Gingrich: “He’s made a number of ‘mistakes’ very recently in this presidential campaign.” And: “I’m not going to change my beliefs” just because he’s in a presidential campaign.

On Iraq, Romney said, “If I were president, I would have carried out the Status of Forces Agreement,” which would have allowed the U.S. to keep between 10,000 and 20,000 troops in Iraq. But said he would not send troops back. “We can’t send troops all over the world where there are bad things happening.” He said there could have been a better transition in Iraq. “We can’t fix everything in the world,” he added again, when asked what he’d do today. “We’ve lost our capacity to use our military might because he pulled the troops out so quickly.” Now, the U.S. has to use “soft power.”

PERRY: Taegan Goddard points out: “Despite writing a book on 10th amendment rights, Rick Perry is asking federal judges to intervene and allow him on the Virginia presidential primary ballot.”

NBC’s Carrie Dann reports on Rick Perry’s “transformation” to move more to the right on abortion. He’s now against exceptions for rape and incest, he says, after seeing a film produced by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, by the way, won Iowa in 2008.

SANTORUM: “Rick Santorum isn't going down without a fight. In fact, that fight might be lifting him up,” the AP’s Beaumont writes. “His cash-strapped campaign has only just started running TV ads, and his organization is small in a state whose contests rely on the ability of campaigns to turn out a slew of supporters. Still, there's evidence that Iowa Republicans, many of whom are still undecided and looking for a conservative candidate, may be starting to give the former Pennsylvania senator a look at just the right time.”

More: “In recent days, Santorum's crowds have started growing as he rallies conservatives with a pit bull's pugnaciousness, and just a touch of anger. He has earned the support of a number of key backers of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Republican caucuses. They include former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, conservative Sioux City radio host Sam Clovis and some influential evangelical pastors. He landed the endorsement Tuesday of evangelical conservative activists Alex and Brett Harris, founders of Huck's Army, a national group that supported Huckabee's 2008 campaign.”