Following Monday night's debate at the University of South Florida, an aide to Newt Gingrich rolled out a line of attack that could resonate with Florida Republicans: The Gingrich-Romney race is simply a replay of the 2010 Florida GOP Senate primary that pitted conservative upstart Marco Rubio against moderate flip-flopping governor Charlie Cirst.
"You know, on one side, you had a true conservative. On the other side, you had someone masquerading as somebody that they were not," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told reporters in the post-debate spin room. "So the people of Florida are very familiar with this story." The story in 2010 ended, of course, with Crist bolting from the Republican party when it became apparent Rubio would trounce him. Crist lost to Rubio in the general election as an independent.
"I think here in Florida, all we have to do is remind people that Mitt Romney is Charlie Crist," Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who runs the pro-Gingrich Restoring Our Future PAC, said during an MSNBC interview. "If you voted for Charlie Crist, then you should vote for Mitt. If you didn't vote for Charlie Crist, then you should vote for Newt."
Given Gingrich's baggage and his own occasional straying from conservatism--on Paul Ryan's Medicare reform and cap-and-trade, for example--it might seem strange to hear the former speaker compared to a rising star like Marco Rubio. But the fact that a number of Romney aides worked on the Crist primary campaign won't help Romney convince Floridians he is not the second coming of Crist.
Top Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom dismissed the comparisons, saying, "Governor Romney endorsed Marco Rubio. I don't know what else to say about that."
"Campaigns aren't about the hired help," he continued. "They're about the candidates."
Romney did indeed endorse Rubio about 10 days before Crist dropped out of the GOP primary. Gingrich sat on the sidelines slightly longer than Romney and endorsed Rubio a few days before Crist bailed on the GOP. In an October 2009 interview, Gingrich praised both Rubio and Crist. Around that same time, in the first big moderate-versus-conservative fight of the Obama era, Gingrich actually backed the moderate in an upstate New York congressional race.
When asked about the Gingrich's endorsement of liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond became a bit prickly. "Nobody has done more to grow their party, okay, than Newt Gingrich," he said. "I think taking the Scozzafava example, which he's openly admitted he was misinformed and it was a bad decision, isn't exactly a good analysis."