Washington (CNN) -- Republicans are running out of time to play eeny, meeny, miny, Mitt. With less than four weeks until the Iowa caucuses, GOP voters face a fundamental choice: Go with the candidate who appeals to their heads -- or the one who appeals to their hearts.
The smart money has always been on Romney. For months, he waited safely outside of the blast areas that surrounded the implosions of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
In a world where a gaffe can travel the world at the speed of a retweet, the former Massachusetts governor studiously avoided interviews and news conferences. Why answer the question "Are you a flip-flopper?" Who wants that?
Polls have consistently shown Romney poses the greatest threat to President Obama's re-election. Team Romney is counting on GOP voters to grasp this concept and choose accordingly.
But as fate would have it, the final un-Romney to emerge is Newt Gingrich. Famously undisciplined and with more baggage than a department store, Gingrich took Romney's playbook and read it backwards. He holds news conferences. He does interviews. He basically takes any question (especially about former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi). He loves every minute of it.
So do Republican voters. Gingrich packs them in to town halls in Iowa and South Carolina with over-the-top, adrenaline-shot rhetoric that jump-starts dormant conservative hearts. See Gingrich's line about how he would be a paycheck president versus Obama's food stamp presidency.
"I know that the beginning is January 3, but this is going to take longer than a week or two to sort out," Romney quipped to reporters in Arizona. "I'll be on the air a good deal more than in the past, doing my very best to communicate with the American people why I'm running for president," he added. Translation: No more bubble. No more playing it safe.
The latest CNN/Time/ORC International poll finds Romney has little time for a reboot. Gingrich has a commanding lead in three out of four early voting states -- Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Romney is ahead in New Hampshire, but the margin is shrinking. A Gingrich upset or near victory in the Granite State could destroy Romney.
With precious little time left on the clock, all the man from Massachusetts has time for is a good old-fashioned mud fight with Gingrich. As past colleagues and adversaries of the former speaker can attest, this is another area where Gingrich excels.
The first shot may be Romney's latest ad, which focuses on his 42-year marriage with his wife, Ann, something the former governor also pointed out in his speech Wednesday at the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential forum in Washington. It was a not-so-subtle reference to Gingrich's three marriages.
So far, Gingrich is keeping his powder dry. "I think Mitt Romney is a very admirable person, and I'm not going to pick a fight with Mitt Romney," Gingrich said in an interview Wednesday with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. He went on to say his personal life is in a different place now.
"I have a very strong marriage to Callista, as you know. I'm very close to my two daughters. Callista and I have two wonderful grandchildren, Maggie and Robert, who are my debate coaches," Gingrich said.
A Romney campaign spokeswoman emphatically denied to CNN that the ad was an attack on Gingrich's personal life.
"This ad is about Mitt Romney, his values, what's important to him and what he would take to the White House. Which is a commitment to his family, a commitment to his faith, and a commitment to this country," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said to CNN.
After an event in South Carolina, Gingrich told reporters he was "staying positive." His spokesman said he didn't see the Romney spot as a personal attack.
"Only a cynical reporter would ask a question like that," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said to CNN.
But Democrats are starting to pay attention. In just the last week, democratic heavies Pelosi, former White House adviser David Axelrod, and Vice President Joe Biden have weighed in on the rise of Newt.
"He's really the godfather of gridlock," Axelrod said on CNN's "John King USA" in a reference to Gingrich's time as speaker. Gingrich likes to point out it wasn't all partisan warfare in the 1990s. He worked with President Bill Clinton to balance the budget and reform welfare.
He recently called Pelosi's threat to reveal secrets from the House ethics investigation into Gingrich's leadership a "Christmas gift." He may be right.
"They know about the ethics violations. They know about the marriages, and as the left and the president continue to attack him, I think this just solidifies him with the conservative base," former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia, said on "John King USA."
Gingrich would force Democrats to rip up the Romney battle plan and start from scratch. The Democrats could obviously turn back to Gingrich's colorful past. The question is whether voters are still scared by old ghosts.
The former speaker has also offered the novel idea of challenging Obama to a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates. If the president doesn't show, Gingrich vows to chase him around the country.
"If they would rather have me chase him all the way to Election Day and have the country watch a man afraid to defend his own record, I think that will work equally well," Gingrich crowed at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum. The gears in Gingrich's political mind are turning. He sees a path to victory.
Longtime Washington strategists say there are real-life political experiences behind the line "Be careful what you wish for."
"Everybody said if we could just have Clinton (as the nominee in 1992), then we know we got this, because we know who was taking the oath of office on January 20 the next year," former Gingrich spokesman and Republican strategist Rich Galen said on CNN's "AC360°."
There are signs Democrats are beginning to heed those words of caution.
"In 1980, Democrats were foolish enough to hope they ran against an actor who co-starred in movies with monkeys. We all know how that turned out," said Bill Burton with the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA Action.
The hope for Romney is that, like Perry and Cain, Gingrich also self-destructs. One Republican congressman who served under Gingrich wants that to happen long before the Republican convention next summer in Tampa, Florida.
"He's too erratic. He's too self-centered. The time that he was speaker, there was one crisis after another, and they were almost all self-inflicted," Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."
The clock is ticking on the Republican version of eeny, meeny, miny, Mitt. Time to catch a tiger by its toe and ride it to next November.