Romney, Gingrich Trade Jabs Courting Florida Primary Voters

Newt Gingrich And Mitt Romney
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, left, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during an exchange at the Florida Republican Presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida. Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich criticized each other as they fanned out across the state of Florida courting voters in a final weekend push before the Jan. 31 primary.

Romney teased Gingrich for being thin-skinned at debates this week as his campaign unveiled a new television advertisement reminding voters of the former U.S House speaker’s ethics 1997 congressional reprimand.

At a rally in Pensacola, Romney said his “most fun” recently had been at televised debates.

“This last one, Speaker Gingrich said he didn’t do so well because the audience was too loud. The one before, he said he didn’t do so well because the audience was too quiet,” Romney said. “This is like Goldilocks, you know, he’s got to have it just right.”

Gingrich, campaigning in Port St. Lucie, called the Goldilocks quip “baloney.” He said he unhappy with both of the previous debates because Romney was “totally dishonest.”

NBC Complaint

The Romney ad, which began airing statewide in Florida yesterday, shows former NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw opening his Jan. 21, 1997, newscast detailing the House vote reprimanding Gingrich, and the $300,000 in fees his colleagues imposed on him to cover the expenses of the ethics investigation.

Gingrich was formally reprimanded for providing false information to a congressional panel investigating whether he used tax-exempt charitable contributions for political purposes in violation of federal law.

The Romney campaign bought more than $1 million worth of advertising time to run it, according to a person familiar with the purchase who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The NBC News legal department wrote a letter to Romney’s campaign asking for the removal of all NBC News material from their political ads. Brokaw said in a statement today that he is “extremely uncomfortable with the extended use of my personal image in this political ad” and that he didn’t want his “role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign.”

The Romney campaign didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment, while Gingrich Spokesman R.C. Hammond sent an e-mail saying “Finally! A crack in the establishment.”

Gingrich’s Challenge

Romney has taken a more aggressive posture in trying to blunt Gingrich’s challenge for the party nomination in a state that represents the most diverse electorate so far of the primary campaign.

A poll of 580 likely Republican primary voters released yesterday by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University showed Romney pulling away from Gingrich, 38 percent to 29 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. A Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 25 put Romney only two points in the lead.

The Florida primary increased in importance after earlier Republican contests in three states produced three different winners.

Gingrich attracted crowds today of about 250 each at golf courses in Stuart and Port St. Lucie, where he started a call-and-response with the audience that included a chorus of, “Defeat Barack Obama.” At both stops, Gingrich promoted his plan to re-invigorate the U.S. space program and portrayed Romney as a moderate who didn’t represent average Americans.

Romney’s Taxes

“I’m trying to lower your taxes to the Romney level,” Gingrich said to applause. “I think if 15 percent is good enough for Mitt Romney, 15 percent is good enough for you. It’s time that somebody fought for hard-working, tax-paying Americans.”

Gingrich’s campaign announced plans yesterday to air a television ad in Florida suggesting Romney was dishonest in his criticisms of Gingrich.

“What kind of man would mislead, distort, and deceive just to win an election?” the narrator of the advertisement says. “This man would be Mitt Romney.”

Competing for the state’s Hispanic voters, Gingrich, 68, and Romney, 64, both spoke yesterday in Miami to the Hispanic Leadership Network, a pro-Republican group. Hispanics make up about 10 percent of registered Republicans in Florida.

Before Gingrich addressed the group, his campaign released a letter from 19 Hispanic leaders who said Romney has “not provided a real solution on behalf of the 12+ million immigrants who live in the shadows of the American communities.”

Hispanic, Jewish Voters

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, stressed his support of “legal immigration” and pushed for expanded trade.

While Romney generally avoided direct attacks on his rival yesterday, he referred to Gingrich’s proposal to establish a colony on the moon -- a plan his rivals have described as a waste of federal funds -- during an afternoon stop at Cape Canaveral.

“In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I’d come here and promise hundreds of billions of dollars,” Romney said, referring the U.S. space program work done in Florida. “I know that’s something that’s very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”

Hundreds of miles south in Delray Beach, Gingrich worked to win support from Florida’s Jewish community yesterday.

At a Republican Jewish Coalition rally -- where some of the crowd of 400 were wearing pins reading “Obama, Oy Vey!” -- Gingrich won applause by calling Iran the “biggest existential threat to the United States” and criticizing the Obama White House for a foreign policy of “appeasement.”

Florida’s Jewish population of 640,000 is more than any state except for New York and California, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank.

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