Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney disputed the idea that, having spent millions of dollars on TV ads and his state organization, he has to win the Iowa Republican caucuses Thursday.
"There's no 'have to win,'" Romney said in an interview with ABC News Tuesday. The former CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics predicted he'd win "either the gold or the silver and then go on from there."
Romney was spending New Year's Day hopping from house party to house party in the Des Moines suburbs. ABC News caught up with him in the town of Ankeny on the Mitt-Mobile, his campaign bus.
Watch the full interview tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET
Acknowledging that he's locked in a dead heat with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Romney said he marveled at the fact that he started 2007 at 5 percent or 6 percent in the polls.
"To now be one of the top two contenders, with Mayor Giuliani and John McCain and Fred Thompson all the way behind me -- people who are household names -- that's really quite an accomplishment," he said.
In the past week, the rhetorical brawl between Romney and Huckabee has gotten intense and personal, seeming to climax with Monday's unusual press conference at which Huckabee convened the media to show them a negative campaign ad about Romney all set to begin airing across the state.
Instead, Huckabee announced that he wanted to change the tone and return to positive campaigning. He then showed the roomful of reporters and cameramen the attack ad he'd just said he didn't think should air on television.
"I think it's a very strange and confusing thing to the people of Iowa to say on the one hand you want to run a positive campaign and then on the other hand, 'Here, look at my negative advertisement, make sure and take careful notes,'" Romney said. "I think that's very confusing and puzzling to people here."
Romney, however, has been the leading creator of negative TV ads in this campaign season, launching them in Iowa against Huckabee -- on the subject of foreign policy, crime and immigration -- and in New Hampshire against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for having opposed President Bush's tax cuts.
Romney disputes that should he secure the nomination it would only be by "winning ugly." He said he didn't think he'd have a tough time convening all his GOP primary opponents on the stage during the Republican national convention in Minnesota this summer, as is tradition.
"I don't disparage my opponents," Romney said. "I talk about how I respect them, how they're good men. Sen. McCain is an honorable person, I note that. He's honorable, but he's proven that you can be honorable and wrong."
Romney disputed "that there's anything unusual or wrong with pointing out that he and I have a different view on taxes. Likewise on immigration. He favors a special pathway to allow all illegal aliens to remain in this country forever. I don't. I think that's a mistake. That's not an attack, that's just the reality of two people's positions."
McCain's campaign Tuesday launched a Web video criticizing Romney for a lack of national security credentials. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and former CIA Director James Woolsey, who have each endorsed McCain, said in a statement that "Romney, with no national security experience, was a follower on Iraq, while John McCain showed strong leadership and vision."
Romney said he didn't think the charge was relevant. "Ronald Reagan did a marvelous job as the leader of our foreign policy at one of the most critical times in the last half of the last century," he said in response, "and what he brought to the White House was a vision and capacity to lead. Having been a leader, having run something, it made a real difference. Sen. McCain is a fine person and he has spent a lot of time in the United States Senate, and that is not the same as leading."
As for Iraq, Romney said, "we're not talking about the past, we're talking about the future for our country."
The former CEO of the management consulting firm Bain & Company said he remains philosophical about the election, no matter what happens Thursday and beyond, having heeded the advice of a friend who told him, "'If you win, it's a great experience. If you lose, it's great experience.' Is it intense and hard work? Sure. But, you know, you feel better after a day's hard work, and we've loved it."