Newt Gingrich's big win in South Carolina -- which halted the Mitt-mentum that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had earned with his big New Hampshire win -- was enabled chiefly by his ability to appeal to the state's GOP voters' basest needs, wants and desires.
Gingrich manufactured big applause lines at South Carolina's debates by tapping the vein of racial resentment and anti-media rage, and voters took notice. Naturally, it surely didn't help that Romney spent his week in South Carolina mainly presenting himself as a bumbling, dodging, weak-livered pretend-conservative. But Gingrich, playing on familiar turf and with the themes he's wielded deftly throughout his political career, turned the race on its ear and grabbed the delegate lead and a larger share of national polling.
Now the race turns to Florida, and it's a big prize -- 50 delegates, winner take all. Romney has undertaken an effort to get back into the race -- upping his aggression and changing up his debate prep. And lucky for him, NBC News' decision to keep Monday night's debate audience members sitting on their hands prevented Gingrich from playing to their passions. But Gingrich is still determined to use Florida as a catapult to redefine himself as a viable nominee. And as in South Carolina, he knows what buttons to push. Hey, remember two years ago, when Florida's senatorial race featured this other, quishy, flip-flopping, suspected RINO?
"We can make a very simple case: as governor of Massachusetts he was pro-abortion, pro gay rights, pro tax increase and pro gun control," Gingrich said of Romney. "Now that makes him a moderate in Massachusetts but it makes him pretty liberal in the Republican primary, which probably explains why he hired Charlie Crist's staff."
The former speaker is referring to Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who according to his firm's website has advised Crist for more than a decade, and Press Secretary Andrea Saul and Amanda Henneberg, who both worked on Crist's failed 2009 Senate bid.
As CNN's Shawna Shepherd reports, the Gingrich campaign countered Romney by snapping up Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) former campaign manager Jose Mallea to be its Florida director. Romney's camp has responded by citing Mitt's support and endorsement for Rubio's Senate bid. Earlier in the year, Romney named Rubio as someone he would consider for his vice-presidential shortlist -- along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
For his part, Rubio has yet to make an endorsement in the 2012 race.
That Gingrich is making these comparisons to Charlie Crist is hardly surprising. In fact, everyone in the world should have seen this coming the morning after the South Carolina primary, when Rick Tyler -- former Gingrich spokesman and current head of the Newt-aligned super PAC, Winning Our Future -- went on MSNBC and said: "I think here in Florida, all we have to do is remind people that Mitt Romney is Charlie Crist." And so now Gingrich's campaign has taken up the effort as well. Purely by coincidence, of course. Everyone knows that candidates cannot coordinate with the super PACs that are run by their longtime political allies!
Time will tell if Gingrich succeeds in painting Romney as the second coming of Crist. Gingrich's scorched earth campaign against a milquetoast pol might end up reminding some Floridians of the sort of nasty campaign that handed the GOP gubernatorial nomination to Rick Scott over Bill McCollum (though this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that McCollum is a Gingrich supporter). No matter how things end up, at least Romney will not have to make an apology to the lead singer of the Talking Heads. Probably!