Romney, meanwhile, tried to recast the race as a choice between two kinds of leaders. “We’re not choosing a talk show host,” Romney told an evening rally of more than 500 in Ormond Beach. “We’re choosing the person who should be the leader of the free world.”
“Speaker Gingrich has also been a leader,” Romney said. Then he brought up the ethics investigation into the former House speaker. “At the end of four years, it was proven that he was a failed leader, and he had to resign in disgrace. I don’t know whether you knew that. He actually resigned after four years in disgrace.”
Romney also sought correct his handling of his taxes, saying he would release his most recent returns on Tuesday and acknowledging his previous reluctance to do so was a “mistake.”
Heading to Florida, the two front-runners drew their battle lines for a debate Monday night, when Romney will be under intense pressure to blunt Gingrich’s momentum and do what has long eluded him: capture the enthusiasm of the Republican base.
Gingrich did so last week in South Carolina, but the challenge for the former House speaker is to stir the same passion in the far more populous and politically diverse state of Florida, where expensive media markets require deep pockets and where Romney’s well-financed campaign has been blanketing the airwaves for weeks.
Some Republican leaders were increasingly worried about the growing possibility that the combative Gingrich could lead the GOP into the fall general election — or further divide the party trying to get there. Gingrich sought to turn those concerns to his advantage by stoking the anti-establishment currents running through the Republican electorate.
“We are going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. We are going to demand real change in Washington,” Gingrich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “People are just sick and tired of being told what they’re allowed to think, what they’re allowed to say. As they look at the big boys in Wall Street, as they look at Washington, they know none of the help got down to average everyday Floridians, and I think that gap creates a real anger against the national establishment.”
Romney is trying to tie Gingrich to Washington; his chief strategist Stuart Stevens referred to him repeatedly as a “congressman from the ’90s.” Yet Romney faces his own hurdle in doing so: some Republican voters see Romney as an inside-the-Beltway figure, even if he has never lived there, because of his establishment credentials and endorsements by party elders.