The Romney Offensive Against Gingrich (First Sequence)

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 07: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) reacts to a joke about the bankrupt financial investment firm MF Global during a news conference where he introduced a package of ten legislative reforms designed to ‘help repair the broken budget process’ at the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Joined by the Republican members of the Budget Committee, Ryan described the current budget process as ‘broken’ and said these reforms would steer the Congress back on track. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The alert went out late last night: The Romney campaign would hold a “press call on [the] Gingrich record.” John Sununu and former Sen. Jim Talent, loyal Romneyites both, would riff on the former speaker. Journalists would goad them to do more. The Romney offensive would begin. After a year of refusing to punch down, Romney would have to punch up.

So how’d it go? Sununu and Talent chose to focus their remarks on Gingrich’s May Meet the Press interview, during which he worried that Paul Ryan’s Medicare-as-we-know-it ending budget was “right-wing social engineering.” Republican voters have put it behind them, but the surrogates wanted to resurrect it.

“Speaker Gingrich says outrageous things that come out of nowhere,” griped Talent. “If Speaker Gingrich is the candidate, the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want. It’s exactly why they’re pursuing the strategy they’re pursuing now.” IE, attacking Romney in the hopes that Gingrich could win the nomination and saddle the GOP with a weaker candidate.

Sununu played bad cop to Talent’s disappointed cop. “Right-wing social engineering,” he said, was “a clever phrase that had no purpose other than to make himself sound a little smarter than the Republican leadership.” Why, when he’d worked for George H.W. Bush (during years when Gingrich was minority leader), he knew “a White House that was completely reliable.” Hint: Newt wasn’t.

This won’t come as a shock, but in pumping up Romney – in focusing on how hard a Republican should be ready to hug Paul Ryan – the surrogates oversold Romney’s own words and the differences between him and Gingrich. Repeatedly, they claimed that Romney supported the Ryan plan. “Gov. Romney recognized right away the features of that plan,” said Sununu. That’s mosty true. When asked about it in June, Romney said he would sign the plan if it was handed to him, but “his plan is not the plan I’ll put forward,” and “I have my own plan.” Months later, Romney rolled out his own entitlement reform plan, which differed from Ryan’s in a couple of ways, chiefly in how it kept Medicare-as-we-know-it alive as an option. If the gripe against Gingrich is that he undercut Ryan, well, sure. Using 10-cent words to explain why it’s not worth passing isn’t helpful. But at the time, Democrats also embraced Romney’s whistle-past-the-House-floor approach to the Ryan plan, seeing more proof that it was too radical for most voters.

So the focus on the Ryan plan seemed off. Talent, who served in the House with Gingrich, was on firmer ground when he shrugged and just attacked Gingrich’s discipline. In 1998, Republicans “concluded with the same reluctance that I have today that Speaker Gingrich could not continue as our leader. It was exactly because of these kind of things.” He drew a dark picture: “You’d get up every morning, you’d have to check the clippings – this was before the Internet – and see what the Speaker said, that you’d have to clean up.”