He did say he was going to start pushing back more aggressively against Romney’s attacks. Gauntlet status: Thrown.

“This is politics, and if you can’t stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until the Obama hell’s kitchen turns up the heat,” Romney said Wednesday morning on Fox News.

That prompted Gingrich’s debate challenge.

“Look, I’ll tell you what. If he wants to test the heat, I’ll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week one on one, 90 minutes, no moderator,” Gingrich said…

“Let’s test this kitchen,” Gingrich said. “I’m happy. I’ll go in the kitchen. Go back and ask Gov. Romney, would he like to play in the kitchen? I don’t think so. I don’t think he wants to do anything but hide over here and pretend it’s not his fault that he is flooding the people of Iowa with falsehoods. That’s his money and his staff and it’s his responsibility.”

There’s Good Newt, Bad Newt, and now Righteously P.O.’d Newt. The image of Romney as a gutless, too-slick moneybags who’s paying others to do his dirty work for him while pretending that he’s powerless to stop them would resonate deeply if Gingrich can really push it over the next two weeks. But how’s he going to do that? There are no more debates scheduled before the caucuses and people are tuning out of politics for the holidays. And even if Newt decided to run ads about it, the likely beneficiary as Romney suffers and slumps in the polls would be Ron Paul, not Gingrich. The terrible dilemma for resource-strapped candidates in Iowa is that not only do they need a message that can beat two very different candidates in Paul and Mitt, but a Paul win there is almost as good as a Romney win when it comes to Mitt winning the nomination. That’s why some social conservatives are scrambling to unite behind a single candidate, of course, even if their choice of candidate to unite behind seems curious. You need to beat both right now or else Romney starts to look inevitable.

Here he is this morning telling Newt to man up followed by Newt firing back with both guns blazing on Laura Ingraham’s show. Money quote: “We don’t need to replace Obama’s dishonesty with a Republican who’s equally dishonest.” (Listen to the end for the obligatory Meghan McCain zinger.) Exit question: For a guy who’s staying positive and refusing to be distracted by negative ads, Newt sure does seem distracted by negative ads lately, huh?