SUN CITY CENTER — With a flood of negative ads halting his momentum in Florida, pugnacious Newt Gingrich the underdog replaced subdued Newt Gingrich the front-runner on the campaign stage Thursday.
"He thinks we're going to back down, I don't think so," the former House speaker, speaking of rival Mitt Romney, told about 500 tea party activists in Mount Dora.
"This is the desperate last stand of the old order, throwing the kitchen sink, hoping something sticks because if only they can drown us in enough mud —raised with money from companies and people who foreclosed on Floridians," he said.
Just days ago polls showed Gingrich leading in Florida's Republican presidential primary race after his overwhelming win in South Carolina, but the numbers shifted in Romney's favor after Gingrich turned in a mellow and unremarkable debate performance Monday in Tampa and Romney and his allies overwhelmed Gingrich with TV ads airing across the Sunshine State.
Campaigning before a final Florida debate on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Gingrich said the "weight of the negative ads" and what he called Romney's "dishonesty" had "hurt us some." He accused Romney of profiting off an investment in a Goldman Sachs unit that foreclosed on Florida homeowners.
Romney on Thursday sounded once again like a front-runner cautious about saying anything especially controversial.
Speaking in front of a giant "Obama isn't working" sign at a closed printing plant in Jacksonville, Romney focused on President Barack Obama's economic record rather than Gingrich.
"This has been a Groundhog Day presidency — he keeps saying the same things, and we keep waking up and the same things are going on," Romney said. "Nothing changes. He said he was the candidate of change, but you still have 25 million people out of work, almost 10 percent unemployment here in Florida. You still have home values down and continuing to go down."
It was the latest stop on a depressing tour of Florida, where Romney highlighted the state's economic gloom under Obama: a closed gypsum factory in Tampa, a foreclosed home in Lehigh Acres, and a struggling business in Orlando.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a bitter rival of Romney's in the 2008 presidential race, campaigned for him Thursday in the Hillsborough retirement community of Sun City Center, saying Romney is the candidate to get the economy back on track.
"It's about 90 percent sure that whoever wins this primary in Florida will be the nominee and the next president of the United States," McCain said.
McCain is one of the leading authorities on immigration policy in the Senate, but was stumped when asked about Romney's "self-deportation" plan for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Romney suggested at Monday's debate that rather than rounding up and deporting those undocumented immigrants, they would leave voluntarily.
"Self-deportation? I'm not sure what that means," McCain said.
The Florida primary on Tuesday is a mainly two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. Three automated telephone polls released Thursday showed Romney leading among Florida Republicans by seven or eight points, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul both in single digits.
Paul has largely skipped campaigning in Florida, while Santorum planned to head out of the state today to raise money in Pennsylvania and Virginia, before returning late Saturday.
Santorum insists he's sticking with the race. After remarks at Florida State University geared toward social conservatives, he rolled out the endorsement of state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, a former top Herman Cain supporter. Plakon told reporters he chose Santorum for his conservatism, after Gingrich's recent "Obama-style" ads turned Plakon off.
Times/Herald staff writers David DeCamp and Marc Caputo contributed to this report, which contains information from McClatchy Newspapers. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.