Mute Gingrich

How Romney stole Gingrich’s voice in Florida.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Newt Gingrich is angry and that makes Mitt Romney sad. The former speaker is slipping badly in the polls in Florida and unloading on his way down. He’s called Romney “deceitful,” “maniacal,” and “misleading.” He’s also rendered a historical verdict: Romney’s campaign is the most dishonest he’s ever seen. That cluster of deceit makes Romney unqualified to be president, says Gingrich. I asked Romney about these charges on his campaign bus Sunday night. “We look for qualities in a president. We don’t look for whining and excuses,” he said. “The wrong side of Newt Gingrich is being revealed, and it’s actually quite sad and painful.”

Painful to Newt Gingrich. Romney spoke, his hands in his lap, in the practiced more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of a principal speaking about a student he gladly expelled. An adviser explained what was really going on: “We are not going to let our boot off Gingrich’s neck.”

It’s working. Heading into Tuesday night’s vote in Florida, Romney is ahead by double digits in a series of polls. (A Suffolk University poll has him up by 20 points.) Romney is up, and he’s got Gingrich pinned down. It’s not just that Romney’s attacks are working. They are also robbing Gingrich of his voice. As a Gingrich ally explained, the sniping back and forth hurts Gingrich because it keeps him from offering the kind of positive message that helped him win in South Carolina. The wounded speaker is vowing to fight the battle all the way to the convention, questioning Romney’s character all the way. If week after week of bitter rhetoric is the pattern for the primary to come, the question will not be whether Gingrich can win—he can’t—but how much damage he does to Romney and the party. 

Newt Gingrich once reportedly said that “one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” No danger of that anymore. Romney has won back the front-runner slot through a relentless assault on his rival. After South Carolina, the Romney team decided to leave no Gingrich attack unanswered. Privately, they describe Gingrich as a bully who can’t take a punch. “He’s never won an exchange that hasn’t been with a member of the press who can’t fight back,” said one.

Romney used to let his staff and surrogates soften up Gingrich. Now he takes on Gingrich in every stump speech. In Hialeah, Fla., on Sunday, Romney compared Gingrich’s excuse-making for his bad debate performances to Obama’s excuses for why the economy isn’t doing better. Speaking to a heavily Cuban-American crowd in the parking lot outside Casa Marin restaurant, he hit Gingrich hardest on his contract with Freddie Mac and career as a Washington insider: “You don’t change Washington by having some people change seats.”

The attacks seem to be working. According to a Miami Herald poll, 52 percent of Florida voters had a negative view of Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac compared with 28 percent who saw it positively. Gingrich’s efforts to make Romney’s work for Bain a similar liability have not paid off. Three-quarters of Republican voters said they had a positive view of Romney’s business background at Bain Capital. Only 13 percent had a negative impression.

The Romney counterattack reached its apogee in a synchronized sequence of umbrage-taking Sunday afternoon. In the morning, Gingrich repeated his claims that Romney wasn’t telling the truth. Not long after, the Romney campaign issued a press release with comments from Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen decrying the assault on the candidate’s character. It was a flotilla of fainting couches, as seasoned politicians expressed shock that Gingrich was engaging in the familiar tactic of questioning his opponent’s veracity.

A character attack was answered with a character attack. The message was that Gingrich crossed a line. This was an attack on Gingrich’s temperament—an assertion that Gingrich was too much of a hothead to handle the presidency. He is “casting about and flailing as the pressure in the campaign has gotten higher,” said Romney. 

The Romney campaign was trying to get into Gingrich’s head, and it appears to have worked. In South Carolina, voters said Gingrich spoke to their conservative heart. Romney advisers say the 22-point switch in polls in the state took place after Gingrich’s extended tussle with Juan Williams over racial sensitivity. “Williams was a stand-in for Barack Obama in people’s minds,” said one Romney adviser. Gingrich didn’t repeat that performance during the Florida debates, and all of his other time was spent answering charges from Romney or complaining about them. He was also buried under negative ads, outspent by five to one. All of this effectively rendered him mute. What little space was left, Gingrich botched, driving himself off message by pushing the idea of a lunar base

Gingrich said people would abandon Romney once they learned the truth about his level of dishonesty. Romney said he wasn’t running an advertisement that it turned out he was. Romney said he voted for Republicans whenever they were on the ballot but cast a ballot for Paul Tsongas in 1992. He said Romney had lied about money being in a blind trust. He also rattled off various inaccurate claims Romney had made about his own record. Gingrich seemed to believe that Romney would see his support collapse when people learned the facts. It was a quaint notion, surprising from a seasoned politician like Gingrich who has profited by knowing exactly how attacks work. It is a nearly iron-clad rule of politics that bending the truth works. Gingrich does it all the time in his attacks on Barack Obama. Also, charges can’t go unanswered. That was a lesson Gingrich was supposed to have learned in Iowa, where his campaign never got off the ground in part because he did not answer Romney’s attacks. 

Gingrich wears a replica of George Washington’s battle flag on his lapel, so it’s not surprising that he’s vowing to extend the nomination fight. Even if Romney wins Florida, Gingrich’s team argues, only 10 percent of the delegates will have been apportioned. Gingrich can hang on and rack up votes on Super Tuesday in March, which includes primaries in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia.

But there are significant challenges to this strategy. If Gingrich loses Florida, he loses momentum. Momentum has brought in money. He can rely on big donors to fund his super PAC, but he won’t be able to fund the organization that will be required in future states. There are no more debates for a month. Gingrich plummeted in the polls during the debate-free period around the Iowa caucuses. He’ll have to find some way to crack into the conversation. The difficulty of that task will encourage him to get even more negative, a strategy that hasn’t been effective for him.

Romney, by contrast, will have the momentum going into Michigan and Nevada, two states where he has ties and strong organizations. As Romney wins and Gingrich escalates his attacks, calls will come in to wind up the battle for fear of damaging the party. A couple of Republican strategists I’ve talked to have already pointed to the bickering between the two and argued that the only person it helps is Barack Obama. Independents look at the two men sniping over who is the greater insider and don’t see either talking about the issues that matter to them.

By the end of the day Monday, the tone and feel of the race seemed to favor Romney. Gingrich, who is chronically tardy, was more than an hour-and-a-half late to his midday event in Tampa. Organizers had scheduled the event in an airplane hangar, clearly hoping to draw far more than the 150 or so who turned out. Gingrich was hitting back hard, calling Romney a “liberal” (he’s moved on from “Massachusetts moderate”) and railing about those who wants to stop his candidacy: “I am real change, and that’s why the establishment in both parties is really terrified.”

Romney was greeted by thousands at his events and everyone seemed in a good mood. “Speaker Gingrich, he’s not feeling very excited these days,” he said in Dunedin, Fla., to which the audience collectively said, “Awwwww.” Romney smiled and said: “I know, it’s sad.”