MIAMI — Newt Gingrich started to turn Florida’s Republican primary into a two-man contest Friday by hitting opponent Mitt Romney from the right, left and center at Miami’s Versailles Restaurant and during a headquarters opening in Orlando.
Gingrich also spoke at length to hordes of reporters and released a detailed plan on cracking-down on Raul Castro’s regime in Cuba – an issue that Romney didn’t discuss in depth during his Miami stop in November when he avoided talking to local reporters.
But Romney doesn’t need to talk to the press. He’s getting more than a third of the Republican vote, while Gingrich barely cracks 25 percent in polls.
Romney has also blanketed the airwaves and mailboxes with his message as more than 107,000 Republicans have cast mail-in ballots. Early-voting polling-places don’t open in Florida until Jan. 21.
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Is it too late for Gingrich, who has yet to send mail or advertise on TV?
“No,” Gingrich said.
“We have a mailer going out now, we have other things going on now, but look, he’s raised millions of dollars from Wall Street,” Gingrich said. “If you just measure by money, he’s always going to have more money than we do.”
Gingrich lambasted Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” who’s “pro-tax, pro-abortion and pro gun-control.” He also criticized Romney for his record as a private-equity guru at Bain Capital, which profited on occasion from shuttering companies and laying people off.
That last line of attack, which could find fertile ground in job loss-stricken Florida, has angered conservatives, who say it sounds like Occupy Wall Street language befitting a liberal. And it hasn’t seemed to hurt Romney yet, who is surging in the polls after winning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Gingrich said Romney’s record could haunt him in a general election, where President Obama will excoriate him for being an out-of-touch elite. He also noted that Obama would probably raise more than Romney, who has $19 million in the bank.
“If money’s the only solution then Obama will be reelected,” Gingrich said. “What we have as you saw today is real messages for the people of Florida, and I think that overall we’ll do just fine here."
Only if he wins South Carolina, though. And Romney leads there right now. The primary is Jan. 21.
“I will win South Carolina,” Gingrich said, predicting that voters there and here won’t like Romney’s moderate record and style — which is a likely asset in the general election, however.
Citing Florida’s high number of home foreclosures, Gingrich said he wanted to repeal the Democratic Dodd-Frank Act, which he described as a failure because it did nothing to stop small banks from going under.
Gingrich also called for the reinstitution of a portion of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act to prevent banks from engaging in the type of risky investments that helped lead to the financial meltdown.
Amid references to working with Ronald Reagan and supply-side economics, Gingrich said the ultimate solution to the housing problem was to fix the economy. He wants a flat tax and no tax on capital gains such as stock profits.
Gingrich subtly took a measure of credit for the growth of 11 million new jobs when he was the U.S. House Speaker, but gave little credit to then-President Bill Clinton. He touted his work with Clinton, though, as evidence that he knows how to end Washington gridlock.
Gingrich didn’t mention that the federal government on his watch effectively shut down amid a tussle with Clinton, whom he had impeached. One of the House impeachment managers, Bill McCollum, is one of Gingrich’s Florida campaign chairmen and helped open his new Orlando office.
Gingrich also described his immigration policy as “humane” because he wants to allow some longtime, peaceful immigrants who are here illegally to have a chance at a path for residency, not citizenship.
Without naming his opponents, Gingrich dared them to bash the idea. Gingrich named Romney when he attacked the frontrunner’s time at Bain Capital. Gingrich acknowledged he got “huge pushback” from conservatives. He suggested it was unfair.
“To question a presidential candidate’s claim that he created jobs is not to attack capitalism. It’s to question a candidate,” Gingrich said. “And the idea a candidate can make a claim and then yell ‘foul’ the minute you ask him is just silly.”
Gingrich continued: “If he can’t stand up today and defend his claim, how’s he going to stand up to Obama in the fall?”
The crowd at Little Havana’s Versailles Restaurant murmured in assent during the speech Gingrich gave at the invitation of South Florida Conservatives.
Though Gingrich’s attacks have rallied some conservatives to his opponent’s side, Romney’s campaign showed a sign of worry as it began running TV ads in Florida defending Bain Capital.
A pro-Romney political committee is also defending Bain and criticizing Gingrich for his “baggage:” An ethics fine, hefty fees to consult for Freddie Mac and supporting former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s climate-change legislation.
Romney has disavowed ties to the political committee and said at a recent debate that he hadn’t seen the ads, though he ticked off the details of the commercials’ contents. The pro-Romney group also began running attack ads in Florida against Rick Santorum, who’s running a distant third in Florida polls.
Gingrich on Friday condemned some of the ads from a pro-Gingrich committee that attacked Romney over Bain.
Polls suggest that conservatives are starting to make up their minds and choose Romney, who split the self-described tea-party vote in a recent Quinnipiac University survey in Florida. Many say they’re outraged by the Bain attacks.
Romney's spokesman, Ryan Williams, described Gingrich's attacks as "sad" and "desperate." Still, they seemed unexpected.
"We expect attacks on free enterprise from President Obama and his allies on the left — not from self-described ‘fiscal conservatives.’" Williams said Friday in a written statement. "Speaker Gingrich seems to think that repeating dishonest liberal talking points and running against the private sector is the only way to revive his floundering campaign."
A conservative Washington Post blogger criticized Gingrich Friday for the support of Miami Rep. David Rivera, and has been the target of state and federal investigations over his finances.
Said Rivera, who denies wrongdoing: “So what? These are really liberal attacks to try to cover up the facts that Gingrich has the only detailed plan on Cuba."
In a sign of Rivera’s penmanship, Gingrich issued a letter calling for a return to Bush-era travel sanctions to the island, the repeal of a “Clinton-Castro” accord that keeps Cuban immigrants found at sea from gaining U.S. asylum and for a review of an investigation into whether Fidel Castro and brother Raul should be liable for the “murder” of Brothers to the Rescue activists in 1996.
Cuban politics are a must for Republicans; more than 72 percent of Miami-Dade’s electorate is Hispanic.
Gingrich’s daughter, Key Biscayne resident Kathy Lubbers, briefly addressed the crowd in Spanish and asked them to vote for her father. Gingrich admitted he was highly caffeinated.
"After two café cubanos out front, I am much more energized than when I first got here," Gingrich said.
Gingrich fielded a few questions from the press and the crowd, where one man asked him about a comment years ago when he suggested Spanish was the language of the “ghetto.” Gingrich, who had apologized, said critics had blended two different phrases from a speech and taken him out of context.
What he intended, Gingrich said, was to point out that children need to learn the common language of the United States. “We didn’t want any children trapped in a ghetto, it was a reference to the Middle Ages — being a historian,” he said. “This isn’t about Spanish We want every child to be able to participate fully in getting the best possible job and rising in America.”
Another person in the crowd was Carlos Sanchez, the dentist for Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican and vice-presidential shortlister. He made a brief statement, saying the United States needs to "cut off the head of the snake" in Latin America, Castro.
Before that, Gingrich joked about Sanchez’s politically popular client, Rubio.
“Does this explain Marco’s smile?” Gingrich asked.
Said Sanchez: “I can take no credit for that. He’s a natural in every sense.”
And if Gingrich gets the Republican nomination, chances are he’d ask Rubio to run on his ticket.