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Newt Gingrich winning the crowd contest in Florida

January 25, 2012|By Paul West
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images )

Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — As Newt Gingrich draws large and enthusiastic Florida crowds ahead of next week’s primary, Mitt Romney is appearing before significantly smaller throngs.

While Romney spoke Wednesday morning at a metal distribution facility in Orlando, 300 unused chairs remained stacked off to the side.  That was more than the number of people he attracted, no more than 250 in all. 

They cheered the Republican presidential candidate’s attack on President Obama as an out-of-touch leader who needs to be replaced and lined up afterward to shake his hand and pose for pictures.

Though the event was not a public rally in the traditional sense, the Romney campaign had made automated phone calls to supporters in an effort to drum up a sizable audience for the GOP candidate’s morning-after attack on Obama’s State of the Union address.

Romney drew a connection between the president’s address and Obama’s visit last week to this central Florida tourist mecca.

“As I watched the president speak, I was reminded of his trip to Florida, just a week or so ago, when he spoke at Fantasyland. Because he was speaking in Fantasyland again last night,” he said.  Obama seemed “extraordinarily detached from reality,” he added, “detached from what’s going on in Florida,” hit hard by high rates of unemployment and home foreclosure.

The Republican candidate criticized Obama for not doing more to fix the nation’s debt problems. The looming shortfall in government revenue, as more baby boomers retire, is “a virtual Titanic” and Obama is “saying full speed ahead,” he said.

Romney did not mention Gingrich or any of his other GOP rivals.  But Gingrich went after Romney on Wednesday morning over the issue of immigration in an appearance at a Miami Latino forum that Romney will address later in the day.

Gingrich is riding a spurt of momentum after his victory in last weekend’s South Carolina primary. He has now passed Romney in polling ahead of Tuesday’s Florida primary, the first big-state test of 2012.

The former House speaker drew enormous crowds on Tuesday in the Sunshine State, the final one attracting more than 5,000 people.  On the same day, Romney drew about 150 people to a closed speech in Tampa and addressed about 300 people outside a foreclosed house in southwest Florida later in the day.

At Romney's first stop on Wednesday, American Douglas Metals, metalworking equipment provided a camera-friendly backdrop for the casually clad candidate.

Among those listening closely was at least one undecided voter: Rick Pearce, a friend of the company’s owner, who had an explanation for the crowds that Gingrich is getting this week.

“I think people like the way he’s a little bit crass.  They’re looking for somebody who will tell it like it is,” said the 57-year-old Orlando businessman, who voted for John McCain over Romney in 2008.

“Whether [Gingrich] is the right man for the job is another question,” added Pearce, who said he will vote for either Romney or Gingrich on Tuesday.

paul.west@latimes.com

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