His aides have been begging him to start throwing some punches and now, finally, he’s ready. This is being phrased, of course, not as a case of going negative but of simply “drawing a contrast,” which is the standard boilerplate anytime a candidate goes negative. Let’s see how “drawing a contrast” worked out this past weekend, shall we?

“Speaker Gingrich, do you think that Mitt Romney is buying the election?” a reporter asked the candidate after he accused Romney of attempting to buy votes earlier in the day.

“No, I didn’t say he was. I said he would if he could,” Gingrich told the reporter as he was leaving a campaign event. “He would buy an election if he could.”

More from Politico:

Newt Gingrich, the clear Iowa front-runner just three weeks ago, typically delivers wide-ranging speeches — and is regularly more than 30 minutes late for his scheduled events. His campaign bus was forced to pull over Thursday so the former speaker could conduct a tele-town hall meeting because his cell phone dropped the call. At other town hall meetings, Gingrich has been forced to respond to queries about President Barack Obama’s citizenship and a man who suggested Gingrich is a polygamist because the Bible doesn’t account for divorce.

Gingrich’s campaign sees the distinctions between the two campaigns as a virtue.

“He’s not a robot,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said. “We’re not Mitt Romney and it shows.”

Mitt’s a soulless, filthy-rich automaton who’d gladly use his wealth to subvert democracy if he could — and that’s just Newt “drawing a contrast.” Imagine when he really gets nasty.

Two points. One: That GOP debate in New Hampshire on Saturday night will be insane. There’s no doubt who the target will be, regardless of what happens in Iowa, and you’ll have at least three and possibly four candidates onstage — Paul, Santorum, Huntsman, and Gingrich — desperate to pull him back towards the pack by throwing everything they’ve got at him. (Only Perry, who’s focused on marginalizing Santorum in South Carolina, won’t be heavily invested in attacking Mitt.) I get the sense that Gingrich is itching to damage Romney over the next few weeks even if his own campaign quickly ends up looking like a lost cause. He’s already written off his chances of winning Iowa but is treating it as a moral victory simply for having survived Romney’s attack-ad onslaught; he’s also taken to complaining bitterly at pressers about being “Romney-boated.” If there’s any candidate who’s likely to drop out before South Carolina and throw his support to a rival to consolidate the Not Romney vote, I’m thinking Newt is it.

Two: Do either of the coming week’s big primaries really matter? At this point, the only way Iowa complicates things for Romney is if he finishes behind either Perry or Gingrich, but his share of the vote in the big Des Moines Register poll this weekend was equal to their two shares combined. Just doesn’t seem likely that he’d fade that badly, especially when Santorum’s surge is likely pulling undecideds away from Perry and Newt. As for New Hampshire, Romney’s polling has actually gotten better there over the past two weeks despite Paul’s and Santorum’s surges. His favorable rating in NH is 69/27 compared to just 47/42 for Paul, and in some polls he leads Santorum (who’s still in the low single digits) by nearly 40 points. Hard to believe anyone’s going to get such a boost of momentum from Iowa that they take him out. All of which means that the only meaningful primary at this point is South Carolina, since that’ll be the acid test of whether any Not Romney can beat him on turf favorable to conservatives. The only candidates who are likely to be out by then are Huntsman and Bachmann, so prepare yourselves for a fun 10 days after New Hampshire of arguing about which two among Santorum, Perry, and Gingrich should drop out and endorse the third in the interest of creating a strong challenger to Romney.

Exit question: Should righties unhappy with a choice between Romney, Santorum, and Paul be rooting for a long contested race between the three? That’s the only shot we’ve got at no one winning a majority of delegates followed by a brokered convention. Second look at Ryan/Rubio? Click the image below to watch.

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