NEW: Newt Gingrich takes not-so-veiled swipes at Iowa winner Mitt Romney
NEW: Former House speaker draws distinctions between himself and "moderate" Romney
Gingrich plans to draw distinctions with Romney in "a happy and positive way"
Gingrich hopes groundwork he lays in New Hampshire will pay dividends in South Carolina
Long before his opponents were celebrating strong finishes or spinning disappointing results in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich was airborne for New Hampshire.
It sounded like he’ll be lying in wait for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Gingrich never mentioned Romney by name as he spoke to supporters after an underwhelming fourth-place finish in the caucuses, but he did take a couple swipes at the Republican presidential race’s front-runner.
“Things that became obvious in the last few weeks in Iowa is that there will be a great debate in the Republican Party before we are prepared to have a great debate with [President] Barack Obama,” Gingrich told supporters with his wife Callista standing at his side.
He set the opponents in that debate: himself – “a Reagan conservative who changed Washington in the ’80s and ‘90s,” and Romney – “a Massachusetts moderate managing decay.”
Gingrich, the front-runner just weeks ago, crashed under the weight of millions of dollars of negative ads aimed at him by pro-Romney political action committees. While Gingrich said his campaign was not going to run “30-second gotchas,” he said he did reserve the right to tell the truth.
“And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record than it is on politics,” he said. “So this is going to be a debate that begins tomorrow morning in New Hampshire, and will go on for a few months.”
Gingrich complimented Rick Santorum, who almost pulled off a stunning upset victory for running a positive campaign, while taking another swipe at Romney: “I wish I could say that about all the candidates.”
Watching Gingrich’s speech, CNN contributor Ari Fleischer tweeted, “Newt can’t wait to attack Mitt Romney. If this was a hockey game, he just threw his gloves on the ice.”
The former speaker is not wasting any time, releasing a full-page newspaper ad in New Hampshire Wednesday that calls Romney a “timid Massachusetts moderate” and himself a “bold Ronald Reagan conservative” who can defeat President Barack Obama.
The Gingrich campaign intends to release television ads in the same vein this week. On Tuesday, Gingrich said he will be running ads in early primary voting states New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
But Gingrich staunchly defended his approach as a positive one, arguing that as long as his claims are factual, then they don’t qualify as attacks.
“It can’t be seen as a negative campaign to describe accurately somebody’s record,” Gingrich said Tuesday in Burlington, Iowa. “Otherwise why would you have a campaign?”
“Our ads are all going to be happy and positive – we don’t have to do anything negative,” Gingrich to reporters in Burlington before unleashing a series of differences with Romney he might use in upcoming commercials.
“All we have to say, in a happy and positive way, is Newt believes in defending the Second Amendment, here’s what Romney said about guns. Newt believes in right-to-life, here is what Romney did with Romney care. You can do that pretty happily. You can have happy music.”
Winning Our Future, run by former campaign aide Rick Tyler, will continue to bolster Gingrich’s campaign efforts like they did in Iowa. The super PAC is legally not allowed to coordinate with the campaign, but Tyler tells CNN that, based on Gingrich’s public pronouncements, they too will be pivoting to Romney.
“We are currently planning the next phase of our messaging given our new expanded parameters. [Gingrich] is by far the best strategist we have so we listen to him, through the media,” Tyler said.
Tyler said they are not announcing any ads yet. The PAC will be “active” in New Hampshire but will focus its resources on South Carolina.
Gingrich has spent the last week railing at Romney for saying he had no culpability for the millions of dollars spent skewering his record in television advertisements, even characterizing Romney as a liar on Tuesday.
He claims about 80% of the attacks against him have come from Romney and by association, Restore Our Future super PAC, which has produced negative ads on Romney’s behalf.
Gingrich’s campaign, left for dead over the summer after a staff implosion, sprang to the top of most polls in November after a string of strong debate performances, but the withering assault of attack ads sent him crashing downward through December.
Gingrich is wasting no time getting to New Hampshire, flying there from Iowa on Tuesday night as soon as results from the caucuses come in. Gingrich has said he looks forward to challenging the former Massachusetts governor next door to the state where Romney implemented a health care insurance mandate.
“I didn’t sign ‘Romney-care.’ I didn’t agree to tax-paid abortions, I didn’t put Planned Parenthood in. I am very happy drawing that distinction,” he said.
Gingrich is also hoping the groundwork he lays going after Romney in New Hampshire will pay dividends in conservative South Carolina.
“I think the gap between Romney’s moderate Massachusetts views and Southern conservatism is about the distance from Boston to Charleston,” Gingrich said.
The Gingrich campaign has not indicated how much it will spend on new ads. It has raised at least $9.6 million in the past three months, but earlier this week, Press Secretary R.C. Hammond indicated they will plow through a significant amount campaigning and running positive ads in Iowa.
Gingrich said he will be able to “raise a lot of money” by distinguishing his record from Romney’s.
“We’re just getting started,” said Romney to a reporter’s question about why the ads are not up yet. “Figuring out what the core contrast for the next 30 days is is the most important thing we’re doing right now. I am less concerned about the first wave of ads than I am about getting the strategy right, and I’m fairly convinced that we have a strategy that Romney will find very, very hard to deal with.”
Follow Shawna Shepherd on Twitter: @ShepherdCNN.