DES MOINES, Iowa -- As voting for the Republican presidential nomination rapidly nears, Mitt Romney is facing a troubling truth: This is not the race he signed up for.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has spent most of the year as a shaky front-runner, may still be the most salable GOP candidate in a general election, given his comparative moderation and buttoned-down persona.
The favorite of the moment, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, remains in danger of spontaneously combusting, given his long record of doing just that.
But right now it is Romney who is struggling, and the reason is clear: For most Republican voters, this contest has ceased to be about jobs and the economy, and instead rests on which candidate can shove a fist the furthest down President Barack Obama's throat.
Romney came into the GOP contest figuring his blue-chip business background would make him the strongest contender at a time when pocketbook issues seemed like voters' overwhelming concern. For a while, it worked. Though Romney has never enjoyed the support of much more than a quarter of the Republican electorate, he remained at or near the top of voter surveys as several would-be alternatives rose and then imploded.
But as Saturday night's boisterous debate in Des Moines demonstrated, the fight for the GOP nomination has become just that: a test of pugilistic skills.
Gingrich, who entered the evening as the prime target, survived and even thrived because he showed he could not only take a punch, but hit back -- thrilling Republicans who can picture him turning that aggression on Obama in the fall.
Romney, by contrast, has never seemed comfortable going on the attack, and that unease persisted Saturday. Even when enumerating the multiple failings he sees in the president, Romney comes off more like an auditor than an alley fighter.
Worse for Romney was the impression left by the on-stage wager he sought to make with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had fallen so far into the second tier of candidates he could have just as easily been ignored.
After quarreling over the health care policy outlined in Romney's campaign book, a clearly piqued Romney thrust out his hand and offered to bet the governor $10,000 to settle the matter. The Texan smilingly declined, but the damage was done.
The moment threatened months of effort by Romney -- in jeans and open-collared shirts -- to shed his patrician and overweening image, instantly reinforcing the notion that his superior breeding and tremendous wealth make him disconnected from the average voter, a point others were quick to make.
Kathie Obradovich, the political columnist for the Des Moines Register, pointed out in Sunday's newspaper that Romney was "casually offering the equivalent of about one-fifth of the average median income for an Iowa family."
Perry sought to reinforce the comparison during a campaign stop Sunday in Ames, where he said most Iowans don't have "an extra $10,000 that you would throw down on a bet."
"I would suggest to you that $10,000 is pocket change for Mitt, to make that statement," Perry told reporters after speaking briefly at a downtown coffee shop. "But you'll need to ask him. ... Maybe it was just a misstatement or something."
Romney did not mention the bet during a town-hall-style meeting with New Hampshire voters Sunday afternoon. But he responded when asked by a reporter whether he regretted its negative potential.
"Actually, after the debate was over, Ann came up and gave me a kiss and said I was great," he said, referring to his wife. "And she said there are a lot of things you do well; betting isn't one of them."
Asked whether it was the largest bet he'd ever made, Romney chuckled. "That's all I've got," he said, indicating he would not discuss it further.
Despite his casual dismissal, the topic was on the minds of many in the Nashua, N.H., audience, including supporters Gerd and Carolyn Laudien, who viewed the remark as a worrisome development.
"You don't do that!" said Gerd Laudien, a retired electronics engineer, shaking his head as his wife noted that it might have put off struggling Americans. "He's throwing around $10,000 like it's nothing."
"He should have bet him dinner or ... a six-pack or something," said Larry Phillips, a retired police officer deciding between Romney and Gingrich. "Not ten grand."
Republicans have long been the party of order and respected hierarchy, and in that tidy world Romney would probably be faring much better. Traditionally, the GOP has bestowed its nomination on the candidate who is considered next in line; that should have been the ex-Massachusetts governor, who ran credibly for the White House in 2008.
But these are not good or happy times for the Republican establishment, as former party strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out. "The frat is now running the campus," said Dowd, who managed George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign before shedding his partisan affiliation.
The evidence can be seen in Washington, where Republican congressional leaders are struggling to marshal their "tea party"-inspired troops, and here in chilly Iowa, where the first balloting of the 2012 contest begins in about three weeks.
No one glides unimpeded to a presidential nomination. Not Ronald Reagan, who lost the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush in 1980. Not Bush himself, who finished third in Iowa eight years later. Not Barack Obama, who waged the political equivalent of trench warfare against Hillary Rodham Clinton through the last day of the 2008 primary season.
All ultimately, prevailed.
This is Romney's time of testing. Next month, voters will determine whether he emerges better and stronger -- or whether the skirmishing rewards Gingrich or another candidate who, if nothing else, can bloody Obama in 2012.
(Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Des Moines and Maeve Reston in Nashua, N.H., and Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Paul West in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.)
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services