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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And you could, if you dared, say the mitts are off in the Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney, the former front-runner, and his current and most serious rival, Newt Gingrich, are engaged in an all-out verbal battle, with only a few short weeks until voters in Iowa go to the caucuses. Romney is doing everything he can to stop the sudden and surprising rise of Gingrich.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: GOP strategist Ed Rogers, who's neutral in the race, says the Romney-Gingrich battle offers Republican voters a stark choice.

ED ROGERS: Romney is a sure-footed, attractive, vanilla candidate. It's going to remain to be seen whether or not a majority in the party need somebody more spicy, more belligerent - somebody that's going to really to stake(ph) up the status quo.

LIASSON: The rapid rise of the more spicy candidate - Newt Gingrich - has forced Romney to abandon his safe, front-runner strategy. After months of avoiding interviews, Romney's giving them daily. Here he is yesterday with the New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MITT ROMNEY: Zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It's great on talk radio. It's great in the print; it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader, and a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability and patience and temperance.

LIASSON: Romney's getting some help from the other candidates who also need to stop Gingrich. Ron Paul, who's strong in Iowa, is airing this ad attacking Gingrich for consulting work he did for Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage bundler many conservatives blame for the financial crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Newt Gingrich on the defense for taking one-and-a-half million bucks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: After he left Congress, Freddie Mac paid Gingrich at least $1.6 million.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...$1.6 million, some of it just before the housing market collapsed.

LIASSON: Yesterday in Iowa, Gingrich was asked about all the attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: They should run their campaign the way they want to. I'm going to run my campaign the way I want to. And my campaign is going to focus on positive ideas and positive solutions. And I'm, frankly, taking the gamble that the American people care about actually solving our country's problems, not just watching politicians beat each other up.

LIASSON: But there are lots of people - mostly Republicans - beating up on Newt Gingrich. They're calling him unstable, grandiose, hubristic, disloyal and self-righteous. And those are just the words we can say on the air.

All of this may be taking a toll. Several surveys show Gingrich's lead slipping a bit. Ed Rogers says Gingrich's sudden surge to the top flabbergasted many Republicans, who are a little freaked at the thought that Newt could end up the nominee.

ROGERS: There's terror in the streets of Washington. A lot of people in the establishment have been burned by him. This just wasn't part of the playbook for him to be the challenger to the front-runner, much less the front-runner.

LIASSON: If Gingrich is going to be derailed, the Romney camp better hurry up, Rogers says, before the Christmas holidays distract voters.

ROGERS: The days now matter. And every day that - where the Gingrich campaign has the absence of calamity, is a good day for Newt. So if you're going to land a big punch, you'd better do it this week.

LIASSON: Tonight in Sioux City, Iowa, would be a good place to start. The candidates will meet at a debate, their last debate before the caucuses on January 3rd.

As conservative blogger Erick Erickson points out, the debates have been the main event of the race. More than anything else, they've determined the shifting fortunes of the candidates.

ERICK ERICKSON: They're the one, communal strain that every part of the Republican Party can see at the same time, experience for themselves. And Newt is a fine debater, and Romney's debate performances have been worse and worse.

LIASSON: Erickson, like other conservatives, has thrilled to the comeback story of Newt Gingrich, but he is still anguished.

ERICKSON: In my gut, I really do fear that if Newt Gingrich does not implode in the primaries, he will in the general election. But people are really, really nervous that he's not going to be able to keep his ego in check. He is the great American Sisyphus. He rolls his political career up to its pinnacle and then it rolls back down again, over and over and over.

LIASSON: Yes, Erickson says, conservatives are really nervous about Newt. But no...

ERICKSON: No, they're not nervous enough to support Romney.

LIASSON: At least, not yet. And that's why the dynamic of the Republican race has been turned upside down. For months, it looked like Romney might wrap up the nomination quickly. Now, Republicans are wrapping their minds around the possibility of a long, protracted battle - for which Romney, at the moment, seems to be better positioned should that be necessary. Romney has the resources and the organization to go the distance in places where Newt Gingrich hasn't even begun to build a campaign.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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