By John Whitesides
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney hit surging presidential rival Newt Gingrich in Iowa on Friday for attacking a Republican plan to reform Medicare but left the harshest criticism to his campaign surrogates.
On a visit to Iowa, which holds the first contest in the Republican nominating race in less than a month, Romney reminded voters Gingrich had attacked U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan last spring as "right-wing social engineering."
Ryan's budget proposal, which would dramatically cut spending and transform the Medicare health plan for the elderly into a private insurance system, has become a popular cause for conservative Republicans.
"Speaker Gingrich and I have very different views in regards to Paul Ryan's plan and the need to fundamentally transform Medicare," Romney said after a town hall meeting inside an animal feed factory in Iowa.
"My plan is not going to be identical to his but we are on the same page," the former Massachusetts governor said.
But Romney refused to discuss criticism of Gingrich by former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who called the former House speaker "irrational" during a Thursday conference call sponsored by Romney's campaign.
"My views are focused on the distinctions we have on issues and the reaction to the Ryan plan to reform Medicare," Romney told reporters. "As for the comments of other folks who are supporting me, I don't write those scripts for them."
Romney's campaign also released a Web video on Gingrich's remarks about the Ryan plan as it cranked up its attempts to raise doubts about Gingrich and halt his surge.
Gingrich has zoomed past Romney in recent polls in Iowa and elsewhere, and a series of new polls on Thursday showed him opening double-digit leads on Romney in the crucial general election battleground states Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
On just his fourth trip to Iowa since the summer, Romney promised to be back more frequently in the last few weeks before the January 3 contest opens the state-by-state nominating battle to find a challenger to President Barack Obama.
'HEAVY CAMPAIGN TIME'
"You're going to see me more and more," he said. "This is heavy campaign time, I'll be in Iowa and New Hampshire a lot."
Romney has been ambivalent about his commitment to Iowa, where he lost in 2008 after spending millions of dollars. He did not compete in the state party's straw poll in August.
Iowa has a big bloc of religious conservative voters skeptical of Romney because of his past support for abortion rights and a healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts that became a model for Obama's national plan.
But Romney's attacks over the Ryan plan are designed to raise similar doubts about Gingrich among conservatives, although in a general election they could turn off independents who support Medicare as structured.
Romney said he backed a two-tier approach on Medicare that would keep the traditional option.
"The major difference between his plan and my plan is I want people to have a choice to purchase either a private plan or traditional Medicare," he said of Ryan.
Romney's visit to Iowa comes a day before the candidates meet in another debate in Des Moines, and the growing friction between Gingrich and Romney could be on display.
Romney told a crowd of about 150 in Cedar Rapids that his experience as a leader and a businessman would make him the best challenger to Obama. Romney is the former head of a private equity firm.
"I think I will be best able to post up against the president if we're talking about the economy in particular," he said. "I understand the economy as someone who has worked in it."
(Reporting By John Whitesides; editing by Mohammad Zargham)