Mitt Romney delivers a speech at the National Gypsum Co. in Tampa, Fla.,… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Tampa — Using a largely empty building-materials warehouse as a backdrop, Mitt Romney tried to shift attention away from his personal wealth and focus it instead on the man he'd like to face in the fall.
The Republican candidate said nothing about the issue that is dominating coverage of his campaign -- the lucrative benefits he reaped from a tax system that let him pay a lower tax rate on his income than most wage-earners. The closest Romney came to that topic on Tuesday morning was a promise, if elected, to "simplify the tax code, especially for middle-income Americans."
At a stop in Tampa, a central battleground in the Jan. 31 Florida primary, Romney devoted most of his time to lacerating President Obama. In a speech to an invited crowd of supporters that was designed as a preemptive attack on Tuesday night's State of the Union address, he said it was critical "that we make today Barack Obama's last State of the Union. No more from Barack Obama."
"The president's agenda sounds less like 'built to last' and more like doomed to fail. What he's proposing is more of the same: more taxes, more spending, and more regulation," he said, predicting that Obama would use his speech "to divide our nation."
"High unemployment and record home foreclosures. Debt that's too high and opportunities that are too few. This is the real state of our union. But you won't hear stories like those in President Obama's address tonight. The unemployed don't get tickets to sit with the first lady," said Romney, reading from a teleprompter.
"Instead, tonight, the president will do what he does best. He will give a nice speech with a lot of memorable phrases. But he won't give you the hard numbers," Romney added ticking off statistics of his own: Florida's 9.9% unemployment rate and the state's high rate of home foreclosures, which he pegged at one-fourth of the national total.
To applause from his backers, Romney declared that Obama "has run out of time. This president has run out of ideas. This president has run out of excuses. In 2012 we gotta make sure he's run out of the office of the White House!"
Romney, who hopes to be standing in Obama's place a year from now, said that if he were president, he'd preside over a "simpler, smaller, and smarter" government. And he pledged "to do all that a president can to get America working again. When it comes to the economy, my highest priority would be worrying about your job, not saving my own."
He spoke at a National Gypsum plant on the shores of Tampa Bay that closed during the final year of President George W. Bush's administration, putting 70 people out of work. "In a normal recovery under strong leadership, it could be full of workers by now," Romney said.
Sheets of drywall were stacked to his right and a sign that read "Obama Isn't Working" was suspended from the ceiling. A giant American flag hung in the background. About 150 supporters sat in folding chairs inside the cavernous facility, mostly silently at first but later interrupting with applause as Romney warmed to his subject.
In a light day of in-person campaigning, Romney planned only one other stop -- Lee County, in southwest Florida, another hotly contested Republican area. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the other candidates actively contesting Florida, will also campaign there Tuesday. Rep. Ron Paul is not waging an aggressive campaign in the state and will be elsewhere on primary night next week.
Meantime, the Romney campaign stepped up its ad attacks on Gingrich, who is once again surging in the polls after walloping Romney three days ago in the South Carolina primary. Romney and a separate group run by his former aides are beaming anti-Gingrich attack ads into TV sets across the Sunshine State.
The latest salvo, an Internet-only ad, lambastes Gingrich as a classic Washington insider, employing news clips from 1998 to the president to underscore that point. The Romney camp also goes after Gingrich for his reprimand by the House, which included a $300,000 financial penalty.
NBC anchor Tom Brokaw is shown intoning that Gingrich's "peers, Democrat and Republican alike, by an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations." As a kicker, the 90-second video (see below) tweaks Gingrich with a clip, from the day after his resignation, in which he says that then-wife, "Marianne, and I have lots of things to do. And I have already talked to a lot of people today about opportunities to do some more learning, and maybe earn a little bit of money."