Mitt Romney and his supporters moved to prop up his faltering campaign Friday, unleashing millions of dollars of ads across Iowa and trying to connect personally with the voters who will cast the nation's first ballots in January.
A Romney-sympathetic "super PAC" -- an independent group that can raise unlimited sums -- launched a $3.1-million, three-week ad buy across the state. The 30-second television commercial contrasts Romney's job-creation record with President Obama's.
Romney's campaign unveiled a 60-second radio ad that touts his budget plan, business background and electability. And for the second straight day, it unleashed surrogates to criticize the record of Romney's chief opponent, Newt Gingrich.
The moves, all intended to blunt the momentum of the former House speaker, came as Romney made an appearance at an animal feed maker here. Romney talked more to voters than he has at any campaign event here in recent memory, fielding a litany of questions ranging from whether he regretted his Massachusetts healthcare law (he doesn't) to his favorite salad dressing (blue cheese).
But while Romney's campaign was attacking Gingrich, the candidate himself repeatedly refused to do so, saying only that they had disagreements on issues such as how to reform Medicare.
"I think all the people on the Republican stage that are debating
The abrupt shifts in strategy -- which came on the eve of Saturday's critical debate in Des Moines -- followed the release of polls showing Gingrich vaulting past Romney nationally and in key early states, including Iowa.
Neither of the ads airing Friday mentioned Gingrich or any of Romney's other rivals, but a more caustic approach was being readied. The super PAC inadvertently posted a harsh anti-Gingrich ad on YouTube on Thursday, then quickly pulled it down and said it was not yet finished.
Other candidates -- including businessman Herman Cain, who recently pulled out of the race -- have overtaken Romney, long the front-runner, only to quickly flame out. But Gingrich may prove more difficult to dispatch -- his surge has come less than a month before the Iowa caucuses.
And while the former House speaker has armloads of baggage, including prior liberal policies and a problematic personal life, it does not appear to have affected his support so far. A new Des Moines Register poll found that likely caucus-goers have the greatest enthusiasm for Gingrich, and that he is the most palatable to those who support other candidates.
After massive spending and an all-out effort here in his unsuccessful 2008 bid, Romney this year paid scant attention to the state until recent weeks.
Iowa voters are renowned for their desire to interact with candidates, and even his supporters have said they wish he had come here more frequently.
"I don't think he spent enough time initially, but it looks like he's trying to pull it back now," said Frank Morosky, a business owner from Cedar Rapids who attended the Romney event at the feed plant.
Saying he wanted to pose a lighthearted question, the 53-year-old was the one who asked about salad dressing when he shook Romney's hand. The candidate, known for his discipline, said he typically eats a healthy vinaigrette but prefers blue cheese.
In prior appearances, Romney typically spoke briefly and only occasionally took a few questions from the audience or from a hand-picked table of supporters. Friday's event was far more freewheeling. The candidate, his wife, Ann, and his son Josh spoke briefly, and then Romney fielded questions for nearly 40 minutes, with voters asking about his thoughts on climate change, immigration, Islam, abortion, taxes and a host of other issues.
Romney aimed his fire at Obama, and acknowledged the importance of such interactions with voters.
"There are people in this room who are informed and who care about this election, who recognize that this is a defining time for America," he said. "We have on one side a president who wants to transform America into a European-style nation, and you have on other hand someone like myself that wants to turn around America and keep America American with the principals that made us the greatest nation on Earth. And I will do that with your help."
But at the same time, he seemed to acknowledge that his prospects are not as certain as he once might have thought. Asked by a reporter about the super PAC ad, Romney declined comment and then mused that the election would turn on who voters believe is most capable of leading the nation into recovery.
"I hope in that final analysis I get chosen," he said. "If I'm not, I'll be disappointed but not heartbroken."