Washington Republican candidates focus on their main voters Iowa victory will offer momentum heading into New Hampshire

By Steven R. Hurst

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the two leading Republican presidential contenders, are linking their campaign messages ever closer to issues dear to the hearts of voters in a party deeply divided between hard-core ideological conservatives and the more moderate establishment wing.

In the final two weeks before Iowa voters become the first in the U.S. to make a choice in the party nominating process, Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, is stepping up criticism of federal judges and the Supreme Court.

Former Massachusetts governor Romney, the favorite of the moderate side of the party, is insisting he's the candidate who can best fend off Democratic attacks and defeat President Barack Obama in the election next November.

Romney and other candidates also responded Monday to the death of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il with tough language. "Kim Jong Il was a ruthless tyrant who lived a life of luxury while the North Korean people starved," Romney said in a statement. "He will not be missed." Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Kim a "vicious dictator" and said the U.S. must engage with China, North Korea's only ally, and encourage Beijing to work towards a peaceful transition.

Otherwise, candidates were thinking locally with the first votes approaching.

On Jan. 3, Iowa voters will meet in the Midwestern state's precinct caucuses to choose their favorite candidate from a field of seven, in what so far has been a chaotic campaign. Before Gingrich, three other conservative hopefuls quickly rose then drifted out of favor with the most conservative Republicans who do not want Romney to head the ticket.

Gingrich is now leading Romney in polls both nationally and in Iowa and is playing to the conservative constituency by resurrecting the familiar claim that judges in the United States are overstepping their powers.

"There is steady encroachment of secularism through the courts to redefine America as a nonreligious country and the encroachment of the courts on the president's commander in chief powers, which is enormously dangerous," Gingrich said on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

In mounting the broad attack on federal judges and the Supreme Court, Gingrich argues that they are legislating from the bench and have more control over the country than they should.

It's an argument that drew sustained applause during a debate last week in Iowa -- and one that could have particular resonance in a state where Republicans fought a protracted battle with state Supreme Court judges over gay marriage, which is legal in Iowa.

An Iowa victory will offer momentum as the candidates head toward the New Hampshire primary election seven days later.

In a rare appearance on a Sunday news program, Romney defended his years making millions in private business, claiming he'll be able to handle attacks from Democrats who are already trying to paint him as wealthy and out-of-touch.

"The president's going to go after me," Romney said on Fox News Sunday. "I'll go after him."

While Romney and Gingrich were on the East Coast on Sunday, other Republican candidates were campaigning across Iowa.

Perry continued his bus tour across the state, as did Rep. Michele Bachmann. Former Sen. Rick Santorum planned two town hall meetings in the conservative western portion of the state.

Gingrich plans to spend the early part of the week in Iowa. He'll head to New Hampshire on Wednesday, where Romney will already be part way through a four-day bus tour. Romney won't return to Iowa until after Christmas.

In Iowa, the state Republican Party is taking steps to secure its electronic vote collection system after receiving a mysterious threat to its computers.

A video claiming to be from a collective of computer hackers has jolted party officials with fears of an invasion of the database used to gather vote totals and crash the website used to inform the public about results that can shape the campaign for the White House.

While confident in the safeguards protecting the vote count itself, and aware the video may be a hoax, members of the state Republican Party's central committee told The Associated Press they are taking the threat seriously and have authorized additional security measures to ensure hackers are unable to delay the release of results.

Published: Tue, Dec 20, 2011