FORT MYERS, FL - Sinking in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s Florida primary election, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich adopted an optimistic tone during remarks to supporters at a Fort Myers rally late Monday. Gingrich cited an unspecified poll showing that the race is “now tied,” telling the crowd that with their help, he “absolutely can win” the state. In a stump speech filled with harsh criticisms of both Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama, Gingrich also hinted that he was prepared to wage a lengthy nomination fight, calling the Florida contest the “very beginning of this process.”
As the Republican candidate for president criss-crossed the Sunshine State in eleventh hour campaigning, Gingrich was peddling a two-pronged message: First, that President Obama must be defeated in November, and second, that he is the only “Reagan conservative” in the race capable of defeating the incumbent. “I don’t see how a Massachusetts liberal will do better than the moderates we ran in 1996 in 2008,” Gingrich said, comparing Romney unfavorably to unsuccessful Republican nominees Bob Dole and John McCain. The only way to prevent Romney from attaining the party’s nod “is to vote for me,” he argued – an indirect swipe at fellow remaining candidates Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul.
Gingrich repeatedly took direct aim at the frontrunner Romney, calling his rival’s character into question and accusing the former Massachusetts governor’s attack ads “pathetic” and “profoundly false.” The former House Speaker sought to frame Tuesday’s election as a struggle between a “grassroots populist conservative” – himself – and “the [Washington] establishment,” which he suggested includes members of both political parties. To boost his own grassroots credibility, Gingrich cited recent comments from Gov. Sarah Palin, and touted the endorsement of her husband, Todd. He also had enlisted the help of two “special guests” at the Fort Myers gathering, former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and Michael Reagan, the former president’s youngest son.
Cain electrified the crowd of approximately 400 Lee Country residents, joking that the reason he hadn’t endorsed Gingrich sooner was because “I was running against him.” The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO told the audience that he had nine reasons he decided to formally back his former opponent – an allusion to the much-discussed “9-9-9” tax reform proposal at the center of his erstwhile campaign. Cain said Gingrich is the only remaining candidate who has expressed a commitment to “throwing out the current tax code.” He also urged Florida voters to ignore the “gutter politics” of personal sniping, an apparent condemnation of Romney’s tactics.
Michael Reagan introduced the candidate, acting as an authoritative messenger of the central theme that Gingrich can lay an authentic and credible claim to the Reagan legacy. “We need a Reagan conservative, not a Rockefeller Republican,” the former president’s son said, referring to the moderate former New York governor who challenged Barry Goldwater for the GOP nomination in 1964. In the past, Gingrich has stated that he backed Rockefeller in that race, though his campaign is now trying to attach the label to Romney. “After the [1994 Republican revolution], conservatives were thanking Newt – what happened?” Reagan asked rhetorically.
Organizers said they were expecting up to 1,200 supporters to attend the late afternoon event, although only about one-third that many turned out. Many shouted in agreement and waved blue and white placards during Gingrich’s criticisms of Romney, and cheered loudly as the candidate tore into the incumbent president. “This is the biggest election of your lifetime,” Gingrich said. “We don’t need someone to manage [America’s] decay. I’m not a manager. I’m a leader.”
The South Carolina winner asserted that Obama and Romney occupy different wings of the same establishment, and that elite monied interests are bankrolling their respective campaigns. “We’re being outspent almost four-to-one [in Florida],” he said of the Romney campaign and various outside groups. He alleged that some of Romney’s funding comes from taxpayer bailout money “recycled” by Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, and promised a “thorough audit” to determine “where the money went,” if elected.
Gingrich assailed Obama’s recent decision to block an oil pipeline project from Canada to the Gulf Coast, which would have created thousands of American jobs. It’s “a disaster,” he said, calling the move “self-destructive” and designed to appease the president’s “Left-wing environmental extremist friends in San Francisco.” The Republican hopeful pledged to fast track the Keystone XL project, as well as to move swiftly to roll back much of Obama’s agenda through legislative repeal and executive orders. “By the time [Obama] lands in Chicago [after losing], we will have repealed about 40 percent of his government,” Gingrich promised, to applause.
Florida’s polls close at 7:00 pm Eastern on Tuesday night. The winner of the state’s closed primary will control all 50 of Florida's delegates.