In Florida fight, Mitt Romney regained discipline and went on the offensive

January 31, 2012

Mitt Romney regained the upper hand in the Republican presidential race last Thursday when he and his campaign machinery focused a series of carefully orchestrated attacks on rival Newt Gingrich’s character and temperament.

The effort reflected a disciplined but more combative campaign operation that for the first time simultaneously pummeled its chief Republican rival and President Obama, while managing to keep attention on Romney as a fiscal problem-solver. Romney’s advisers said that they were pleased with how rattled Gingrich seemed to be in Florida, and that the campaign plan there would be a model for how they continue to wage battle against the former House speaker.

The contrast between the two campaigns’ approaches was most evident last Thursday.

Gingrich was in Mount Dora, addressing a rally “as a citizen,” he said, and he erupted in a tirade against Romney, calling him “some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs that forecloses on Florida, and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Romney was in Jacksonville, delivering a carefully scripted speech beneath a 30-foot banner that read: “OBAMA ISN’T WORKING.” Speaking from a printing plant that is closing after a century in business, the former Massachusetts governor was fiery but composed and accused the president of governing from “fantasy land.” He took no questions from the audience or reporters, instead letting his remarks drive his two main themes: fixing the economy and defeating Obama.

On television, meanwhile, Romney’s campaign and allies battered Gingrich with paid advertising. At their battle stations, Romney’s aides in concert labeled Gingrich as “unhinged” and called the former House speaker “Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde.” Then that evening, Romney went on the attack himself, getting the better of Gingrich at the CNN debate, and the momentum was his.

The day punctuated Romney’s resurgence after a resounding defeat to Gingrich in South Carolina and represented the kind of campaign Romney and his advisers say they need to wage as the race moves west to a flurry of contests.

“If you attack me, I’m not going to just sit back,” Romney told reporters Tuesday morning in Tampa. “I’m going to fight back, and I’m going to fight back hard.”

After his South Carolina loss, Romney concluded that it was not enough to maintain a singular focus on Obama. Before pivoting to the general election, he must actually win the nomination.

So Romney went on a sustained and sharply personal attack. And his advisers say he will keep up the attack on Gingrich, as well as on former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), as the race moves continues.

“The president and his failures on the economy remain our main focus,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser. “That will always be the elevator music in this campaign. But we’re also going to be drawing sharp contrasts with our opponents as required.”

In South Carolina, Romney lost control of his message and spent a week defending his personal wealth and his reluctance to release his tax returns.

“The lesson is that they had to engage Gingrich directly,” said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist unaligned in the race. “The principal had to highlight Gingrich’s shortcomings but also have a more commanding debate performance. I think he did both of those things.”

In Florida, Romney regained control of his message — largely by avoiding gaffes and other unforced errors and keeping his public appearances and comments to a tight script. For eight straight days, he did not hold a news conference. Apart from one-on-one interviews, he took no questions from reporters until after Florida Republicans started voting in the state’s primary on Tuesday.

This enabled Romney’s aides to better orchestrate his message. For instance, the candidate didn’t have to answer questions about his taxes and foreign investments and bank accounts. Instead of holding generic rallies across the state, as he did in South Carolina, Romney staged message-driven events to try to appeal to targeted segments of Florida’s electorate.

Romney toured a foreclosed subdivision near Fort Myers to highlight Gingrich’s work as a consultant for Freddie Mac. He delivered a formal speech at a shuttered Tampa factory as a “prebuttal” to Obama’s State of the Union address to present himself as ready to lead. And he cut into a suckling roasted pig outside Miami in an effort to win the support of Cuban Americans.

Over the next week, as the contest moves to Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Romney’s campaign team says it will keep up its targeted, and aggressive, campaigning.

Before polls closed in Florida, Romney’s surrogates turned their attention to Nevada. Lt. Gov. Brian K. Krolicki and two former lawmakers held a conference call with reporters to blast Gingrich. At the same time, his media aides sent a statement to reporters saying: “Newt promised Floridians the moon. Will he promise stardust for Nevadans?”

One lesson Team Romney learned in the early primary season: Don’t leave an opponent for dead, for he may soon rise again.

“Two other times he’s been left for dead and he’s resurrected himself,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster who is unaffiliated in the race. “So it’s a serious mistake to assume that he’s just going to go away quietly.”

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