Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny
MIAMI: Facing the unthinkable in Florida just seven days ago — a second loss in a row to Newt Gingrich — Mitt Romney’s campaign team hatched a two-part plan to win the state: Make Newt mad and Mitt meaner.
In a call last Sunday morning, just hours after Romney’s double-digit loss to Gingrich in the South Carolina primary, the Romney team outlined the new approach to the candidate. Put aside the focus on President Barack Obama and narrow in on Gingrich.
Find lines of attack that could goad Gingrich into angry responses and rally mainstream Republicans. Swarm Gingrich campaign events to rattle him. Have Romney drop his above-the-fray persona and carry the fight directly to his opponent, especially in two critical debates scheduled for the week.
The results of that strategy, carried out by a veteran squad of strategists and operatives assembled by Romney to deal with just this kind of moment, have been on striking display in the last week.
If Romney does win Florida on Tuesday, it will have been through a blistering and unrelenting series of attacks. His campaign has pressed everything at its disposal into service to eviscerate Gingrich, painting him as an erratic, unreliable Washington insider in mailings and television advertisements, at two critical debates (where his team made sure Romney had ample and vocal supporters in the audiences) and even by sending supporters to mock Gingrich at his own events.
Gingrich is fighting on, backed by a well-financed political action committee, the enthusiasm of grass-roots conservatives and sympathetic statements from the likes of Sarah Palin, who in a Fox Business interview late last week said the “establishment” was trying to “crucify” Gingrich.
With Tuesday’s Florida primary looming, he is now facing the full capabilities of a Romney campaign team that was built for battle, but that by several accounts became so confident in its own inevitability in the Republican presidential primary season that it failed to see Gingrich’s latest resurgence coming, presuming he had been left for dead back in Iowa.
As recently as Wednesday, several Romney advisers, donors and supporters were speaking in terms of what losing in Florida would mean and how they could survive it.
By this weekend, Romney’s aides were on the offensive and increasingly confident, with some combination of their strategy and Gingrich’s own performance swinging polls in Romney’s direction. Even as they acknowledged the damage inflicted on Romney by the last several weeks, his team suggested it had learned a lesson about never letting up on rivals, especially if Romney wins the nomination and confronts Obama in the general election.
“We had a moment where we kind of started drinking our own Kool-Aid, and it looked like we were just going to blow through it,” said John D. Rood, a chairman of Romney’s Florida finance team. “There is a little humility in getting your butt kicked in South Carolina, and all of the sudden it’s a wake-up call.”
Call to arms
Behind the scenes, Gingrich’s surge was more than a wake-up call for Romney. It was a call to arms employing all the visible and invisible tactics of political warfare.
David Kochel, an adviser who arrived in Florida from Iowa to oversee the pressure campaign, described the strategy as “Let’s go rush the quarterback.”
A team of Romney boosters started infiltrating nearly every Gingrich campaign stop to offer instant rebuttals. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah showed up to challenge Gingrich’s record to reporters and at one point tangled with Gingrich’s press secretary as the cameras rolled. Bay Buchanan, a longtime conservative activist, worked on the Romney campaign’s behalf to win over voters and commentators.
Romney, meanwhile, took on a new debate coach — Brett O’Donnell, a longtime leader of the evangelical Liberty University debate team who advised Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in her campaign last year — and assumed a new role as the campaign’s chief attacker, relinquishing his old approach of leaving the dirty work to supporters and a friendly super PAC.
A team of some of the most fearsome researchers in the business, led by Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, spent days dispensing negative information about Gingrich, much of it finding its way to the influential Drudge Report, which often serves as a guide for conservative talk radio and television assignment editors and to which Rhoades has close ties.
The effort hit a peak by Thursday when the site was virtually taken over by headlines assailing Gingrich, whose advisers said they eventually gave up on trying to persuade the Drudge staff to spare them, acknowledging, in the words of one aide, that “very little can be done.”
But the Romney team was also carefully tracking Gingrich’s every utterance for a potential opening. What an aide described as a “eureka moment” came just hours before the debate on Thursday night. At a Tea Party rally in the central Florida town of Mount Dora that day, Gingrich had opened a new line of attack, noting that Romney had investments in funds that included shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lenders.
Romney’s opposition-research team in Boston quickly dug into Gingrich’s own publicly disclosed holdings to find that he, too, had mutual funds invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The information was quickly fed to Romney during his private debate preparation session at a hotel in downtown Jacksonville.
When Romney delivered the attack against Gingrich that evening, Gingrich was left with no substantive response, a killer blow that helped keep Gingrich from commanding the debate stage as he had in South Carolina.
Gingrich’s unsteady posture was a significant change from just two days earlier, when he and his staff had been giddy over crowds of thousands that greeted him in Sarasota and Naples.