Newt Gingrich visits the Tampa Bay Church and Revival Ministries International… (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Tampa, Fla. — As Mitt Romney ramped up his attacks on Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker responded dismissively, saying Romney is displaying his frustration at losing handily in South Carolina and seeing his numbers slip in recent Florida polling.
“I’ve been told by a variety of people that Gov. Romney has been saying unkind things. I personally prefer not to believe it,” he told about 150 voters gathered under a blazing sun outside the River Church. “But on the other hand, if you’ve been campaigning for six years, and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate, and when you get desperate you say almost anything.”
Gingrich said he expects the former Massachusetts governor to go further at Monday night’s debate, a critical face-off for the two men.
“I’ve been memorizing old phrases like ‘There you go again,’ ” Gingrich said, repeating a line that then-candidate Ronald Reagan used repeatedly in a debate against President Carter. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll finally convince him I am a Reagan-ite if I just use President Reagan’s line.
“This is such baloney. It used to be pious baloney; now it’s just desperate baloney,” Gingrich said. “As president, he’ll be able to open a delicatessen.”
Gingrich also slapped at Romney for hiring political consultants tied to former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is deeply unpopular among many GOP voters for running a moderate campaign against tea party darling Marco Rubio. Gingrich described the hires as “perfectly appropriate because I think they would both be very comfortable ideologically together.”
Gingrich, who was more than a half-hour late, was feeling confident after his comeback win in South Carolina on Saturday, entering the Tampa rally with his wife to Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?”
“Callista and I had a pretty good Saturday in South Carolina,” he said as the crowd erupted in cheers. “And we hope to have a pretty good Tuesday next week right here in Florida.”
He said he planned to lead a grass-roots, tea party, populist campaign.
“This race is the most important for the American people in our lifetime. The question is, are we going to allow Barack Obama to get reelected after the disaster of this term or are we going to defeat him? Now the central question of the Florida primary is simple.… Who do you think has the ability in the debates to go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama?” Gingrich said, and the crowd began chanting “Newt! Newt! Newt!”
Gingrich argued that Romney would fare poorly against Obama in a debate because the president would turn to him and say that he modeled his federal healthcare law on the one Romney championed in Massachusetts.
A few minutes later, a protester started screaming, “You’re not a Reagan conservative!”
Gingrich grew incredulous. “I’m not a Reagan conservative? Did you know Ronald Reagan?”
As he noted that he campaigned for him in 1980 and helped enact his agenda, an angry bunch of Gingrich supporters drowned the woman out and security escorted Diana Barrios, who described herself as an “extreme Democrat,” off church grounds.
Gingrich, who spoke for about 15 minutes, rattled off statistics from the economic recovery he said he helped create in the 1980s working with Reagan and in the late 1990s when he was speaker of the House, and said he could replicate it if he is elected to the White House.
“Winning next Tuesday will be an enormous jump towards the nomination,” he said. “If you help nominate me, we will bring real change to Washington. We will bring real change on the economy. We will bring real change to reasserting and reestablishing American exceptionalism as the basis of our civilization. And we will rebuild our national security, starting with absolute security of the border by Jan. 1, 2014.”
He urged his supporters to reach out to their friends and family and urge them to support his candidacy, saying that is the only way he can compete against the better-funded Romney.
“In the next week, if you will Facebook, email, Twitter, actually talk with, go see, all the variety of ways people still interact, please remind everybody they have the chance to help nominate a general grass-roots conservative vs. the establishment’s moneyed candidate,” he said. “And I think people power once again will beat money power, and I need your help to make it true.”