The Villages, Fla.
At a rally Sunday afternoon in this planned retirement and golfing community, Newt Gingrich drew a line in the sand trap. “I am, in fact, the legitimate heir of the Reagan movement,” Gingrich said. “Not some liberal from Massachusetts.”
It was his strongest rhetorical indictment yet of his GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, who had heretofore been referred to as simply a “Massachusetts moderate.” Earlier in the day, Gingrich told reporters that the Republican party would not nominate a "pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts." Spokesman R.C. Hammond says the change in rhetoric is just Gingrich acknowledging the facts. “We keep learning more about his record,” he says. “A vote for [Paul] Tsongas moves you from middle to left.” Perhaps the change indicates Gingrich is doubling down on distinguishing himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.
But recent polls suggest the tougher talk is the stab of a campaign struggling to improve Gingrich’s diminished position in the state. The latest Rasmussen poll of Florida Republican primary voters shows Romney with a 16-point lead over Gingrich, 44 percent to 28 percent. The same poll had Gingrich up by 9 points just a week earlier. Other polls of Florida voters corrorborate Rasmussen’s findings, and with just two days before the January 31 Florida primary, a state that just last week seemed like Gingrich’s to lose looks to be fulfilling that promise.
“We were looking at numbers from South Carolina at the same point, and we were down then, too,” says a weary-looking Hammond. “Closing days in elections are about momentum.”
Does the campaign have the momentum? Hammond points to Saturday night’s endorsement from businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain as one of their “sticks of dynamite” that can blow up and move voters toward them by Tuesday. Cain will be campaigning, along with Michael Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan, across Florida tomorrow. Gingrich said Sunday that the Cain endorsement is “further proof this is a grassroots campaign against the establishment.”
Maybe, but a more solid example of his momentum may be the size and enthusiasm of the crowds coming to see Gingrich. Here at the Villages, nearly 2,000 waited under the hot Florida sun to see Gingrich. (One woman in a wheelchair had a sign that read, “I’m 90 and strong for Newt.” She was awarded with a special shout out from Gingrich.) Crowds in Coral Springs, Naples, Sarasota and elsewhere in Florida over the past week have been just as impressive in their numbers.
The problem for Gingrich is that the big rallies haven’t translated into improvement in the polls, and the silent plurality of Florida Republicans is siding with Romney. The Gingrich camp sees this as an issue of money and influence—Romney has the funds and the establishment clout to broadcast his image of inevitability. “I have an opponent who has money power,” Gingrich told the crowd. “We need people power to offset money power.”
There’s some truth to this. Across Florida’s several media markets, the number of pro-Romney ads on radio and television far outweigh the number of pro-Gingrich ads. Oftentimes a Romney campaign ad will follow one from Restore Our Future, the Romney-affiliated super PAC. Like those in Iowa, these anti-Gingrich ads are devastating. The Gingrich campaign is at a cash disadvantage and just can’t keep up.
But Gingrich also had relatively lackluster performances in last week’s two Florida debates, and his efforts to paint himself as this year’s Marco Rubio to Romney’s Charlie Crist backfired. His winning strategy in South Carolina, to pit himself as the insurgent candidate against a party-media establishment complex, just hasn’t paid off, though not for lack of trying.
“The truth is we have been served badly, the American people, by the establishment in this country, in both parties. Let’s be clear about it: in both parties,” Gingrich told the cheering crowd in the Villages. “And it’s time that somebody stood up for hard-working, tax-paying Americans and said, ‘enough.’” But will it be enough for Gingrich?