Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney Trade Blows As Florida Becomes Primary Battleground [UPDATE]

Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney Trade Blows As Florida Becomes Primary Battleground [UPDATE]

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In the first few hours after Newt Gingrich's 12-point rout Saturday over Mitt Romney as the finality of the thrashing washed over the former House speaker and those in and around his campaign, a growing optimism hardened into confidence.

"I think he wins Florida," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who endorsed Gingrich and stood on the stage with him Saturday night.

Franks articulated how Gingrich is capturing momentum among Republicans, in part, because many feel there is a "subconscious equivocation" about core conservative issues in the heart and soul of Mitt Romney.

"And it's really not fair to put that mantle upon him, of some metaphysical feeling that we wonder if he's going to be there in the clinch," Franks said. "But I'm afraid that that's kind of a ubiquitous feeling among conservatives."

Kevin Kellems, one of Gingrich's top advisers, said that "Gov. Romney’s campaign is now showing real signs of being off-balance and nervous. There must be a reason for it."

When asked for specific signs of anxiety in the Romney campaign, Kellems responded by email, "among others, Gov. Romney's inability to answer basic questions about his taxes without bouncing around the podium like an overcaffeinated high-schooler being put on the spot by his parents."

Kellems, a former White House aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and a veteran Republican political figure from Indiana, has become the closest thing to a campaign manager for Gingrich, though he disavows the title.

"Newt runs his own campaign," Kellems said from inside the empty Hilton ballroom where Gingrich had an hour or so earlier given a 23-minute victory speech to hundreds of rowdy, boozy supporters.

Regarding Florida, Kellems indicated that Romney's money and organizational advantage could be swept aside by the genuine enthusiasm among conservative Republicans for Gingrich.

"In South Carolina, Gingrich was outspent 2 to 1 by Romney and his allies, which potentially bodes well for Gingrich in Florida," Kellems said. "Considering the size of his South Carolina victory margin, Newt Gingrich has proven himself to be the conservative alternative to Massachusetts moderate Mitt."

Kellems expressed confidence that Gingrich's hot-blooded, no-holds-barred style of conservative politics would eventually win out over Romney's approach, sooner or later.

"Newt doesn’t think in terms of absolute marks on the primary calendar -- he thinks in terms of why his bold conservative approach to jobs and growth can eventually prevail over a timid moderate," Kellems said. "How long that will take is anyone's guess at this stage."

That adjective, "timid," seems to capture the way that Gingrich, his campaign and his supporters feel about Romney -- and why they don't like him.

"I don't think Romney created enough heat. He's been leading here, campaigning for five years and never created any heat," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chairman who helped lead the state effort for Gingrich. "I don't think he's got that conservative passion to do it. I don't think they believe him. I don't think he connects."

The proposition that Romney is timid is about to be tested in Florida and beyond. Romney's campaign -- starting with the campaign manager Matt Rhoades -- knows full well how to conduct bare-knuckled politics and is gearing up to do so.

"Speaker Gingrich is a failed leader who had to resign in disgrace," said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told HuffPost on Sunday, previewing the line of attack Romney supporters will pursue in the coming days. "He had his chance to change Washington. Since leaving government, Newt Gingrich has been a lobbyist in Washington. This is not the type of leadership we want in the White House."

UPDATE: -- 11:10 p.m.

On Sunday afternoon, at Romney's first campaign event in Florida since his loss in South Carolina, he went after Gingrich in a way he has never done before, signaling an escalation on his part.

Romney said that Gingrich, after his four years as House speaker, was a "failed leader" and "had to resign in disgrace," according to CBS News.

Gingrich was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and had to pay a $300,000 fine, but he said on Sunday in a CNN interview that the fine was to pay for the cost of the investigation and that he was cleared of wrongdoing.

But Romney's attacks are sure to bring much more attention to exactly what happened in the House ethics probe, which eventually led to Gingrich's decision to leave his post as speaker and his seat in Congress in 1999.

Romney also criticized Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. From CBS:

"Well, what's he been doing for 15 years? He's been working as a lobbyist, yeah. He's been working as a lobbyist and selling influence around Washington. He's been working for Freddie Mac. Heard of those guys?" Romney said, in a state where housing foreclosures, including some presided over by the mortgage giant, have left the economy in tatters.

He called on Gingrich to release the records of his contract with Freddie Mac, which paid him more than $1.6 million over eight years. "What was his work product there? What was he doing at Freddie Mac? Because Freddie Mac figures very prominently into the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down. It's time to turn that around!" Romney said.

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