(Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney toughened his rhetoric against Newt Gingrich on Friday in a sign he is starting to take seriously the challenge from his surging rival.
Gingrich, the latest conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney, may be peaking at the right time with only four weeks left until Iowa holds the first U.S. nominating contest of the 2012 election cycle on January 3.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, drew attention to Gingrich's long history in Washington as a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a consultant for various operations that have benefited from taxpayer funding.
"I think if America feels that we need somebody who has lived in Washington for the last 40 years to run the country, he's a good choice," Romney told Fox News.
"This is not a matter that America needs better lobbyists or better deal-makers, better insiders. I think America needs a leader," Romney said.
Gingrich's support has surged in recent weeks in the race to determine the party's nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
The Republican race has seen several candidates rise and fall as viable rivals to Romney, the former head of a private equity and leveraged buyout firm.
The two contenders have sparred this week, with Gingrich raising allegations of Romney policy flip-flops while Romney denounced the former House speaker as a "lifelong politician" who lacks credibility in understanding of how the U.S. economy works.
"I actually believe that what we need is someone who has lived out in America, not in Washington, who's had the experience of leading enterprises, who has led a state...I have that experience," Romney said.