Contrasts between Gingrich, Romney grow more evident
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.
THE VILLAGES — Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are taking two different tracks to win support from Florida's most ardent conservatives.
Gingrich is trying to rally the Tea Party and other anti-establishment forces who dominated the 2010 elections. Romney is winning the backing of some of the country's most prominent Republicans and bolstering it with a well-financed advertising campaign as Florida heads toward a Tuesday presidential primary.
The contrast was most evident in Central Florida, where, over the last two days, the campaigns have pursued their rival strategies with the outcome remaining uncertain.
On Friday, Romney's campaign sent the Republican Party's last presidential candidate into The Villages, a sprawling retirement community north of Orlando that has reliably backed GOP candidates in statewide races.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who used his win in the 2008 Republican primary in Florida to secure his nomination, questioned Gingrich's allegiance to Republican Party principles, sharply criticizing him for his attacks on Romney's business acumen and wealth.
"A lot of us have been disappointed in these attacks on Mitt Romney for being in the free enterprise, capitalist system in America," McCain told a crowd of about 100 residents gathered in a recreation center.
"What is that about?" McCain said "The fundamental principle of our Republican Party is the free enterprise, capitalist system — less government intervention and lower taxes. That's what our party is all about."
Yet, the day before, Gingrich seemed to relish taking on the financial interests in the GOP. He told a rally of Tea Party supporters in nearby Mount Dora that the Republicans could not beat Barack Obama "with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts."
"Make no bones about it, this is a campaign with the very nature of the Republican Party and the very opportunity for a citizens conservatism to defeat the power of money and to prove that people matter more than Wall Street," Gingrich said.
On Friday, Gingrich renewed his attack in a new television ad that says Romney misled voters when he said in a Thursday debate that his investments in the Freddie Mac and Fannie mortgage entities were held in a blind trust. Gingrich cited media reports showing that Romney had more access to some of the investments, which have since been sold.
"If we can't trust what Romney says about his own record, how can we trust him on anything?" the ad asked.
But McCain, who has also been joined by the GOP 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, is part of a growing number of Republican establishment leaders who are questioning Gingrich's own credibility.
McCain told the Villages audience he had a parting with Gingrich when he sued his speakership to broaden the use of budget "earmarks," which critics say leads to wasteful government spending.
"That is not what the Republican Party is all about," McCain said.
Yet, Gingrich's message is resonating with Tea Party voters, who played a crucial role in the election of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and Gov. Rick Scott in 2010.
"He's saying what the Tea Party people are thinking," said Jan Broadhurst of the North Lake Tea Party. "Now they have a voice."
Broadhurst, who was among a group of Florida Tea Party members who went to South Carolina to help Gingrich, said the former speaker's combative nature is needed to be successful and that she is "tired of the dirt" that is being raised in the hard-fought campaign. She said the campaign needs to focus on the issues, "not what he did 20 years ago."
"I think Romney is a really nice man, but I just don't think he has the gumption or the forcefulness to beat Obama," she said.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University showed twice as many Tea Party members favored Gingrich over Romney in Tuesday's primary, with those voters accounting for 30 percent of the electorate.
But the poll also showed Romney with a 38-29 percent overall lead against Gingrich, with him winning the moderate vote. The poll seemed to show that Gingrich's surge, which began after his South Carolina victory, had slowed.
And one of Romney's advantages is that his campaign has identified and courted many of the GOP voters who have already cast their ballots in the early voting period or by absentee ballot.
"I do believe he is the most electable candidate," said William Burdick, a 73-year-old retiree in The Villages who has already voted for Romney.
While conceding that Gingrich is more forceful in his presentations, Burdick said he has concerns about some of the issues his critics have raised, such as the budget earmarks. "Somehow I don't think he would be the best president," he said.
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