Gingrich has attached himself to the tea party movement ever more tightly in recent days, casting himself as an antiestablishment revolutionary who understands the movement’s rage against President Obama. He has embraced the endorsement of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. He has promised that he would put Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former presidential rival, in charge of a commission studying the 10th Amendment, a rallying cry for tea partyers who believe Washington has repeatedly violated that provision of the Constitution by usurping the powers of the states.
In the most recent contest, on Saturday in South Carolina, Gingrich’s tea party embrace worked: He won the primary with the overwhelming backing of tea party supporters, beating Romney in that group of voters by about 20 percentage points.
Yet it remains unclear whether the tea party is as vibrant nationwide as it was three years ago. Even more untested is the movement’s ability to shift opinion at the presidential level, especially against leaders of the Republican establishment who think Romney would be more electable against Obama.
Florida — which launched the careers of Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott, two of the tea party’s most prominent figures — may be the perfect setting to learn the answer.
Both sides are aware of that dynamic. Gingrich has developed a vast network of tea party support nationally, particularly in Florida; 42 grass-roots groups across the Sunshine State have endorsed him and will join him on Thursday for a tea party rally near Orlando.
Gingrich began the day Tuesday at a diner in St. Petersburg, where he told a packed room of supporters, “As many of you know, Jose Mallea is helping us with our campaign, Marco Rubio’s campaign manager.” The mere mention of Rubio drew cheers, and Gingrich’s next line, comparing Romney to Crist, received boos.
“We saw last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist’s campaign,” Gingrich said, referring to several former Crist advisers who work for Romney. “I sort of think that tells you everything you need to know about this primary.”
Romney pushed back against the comparison to Crist. The candidate noted that he endorsed Rubio for Senate before Crist left the Republican Party to run as an independent. And, he said, it would be absurd to judge a candidate based on his staff’s previous employers — with a dig at Gingrich over his own campaign woes.
“Maybe because he lost his whole staff, he’s consumed with other people’s staff. I don’t think this is about staff, I think this is about the candidate,” Romney said.