THE VILLAGES — Newt Gingrich is determined to turn the next seven months into a battle between conservative activists and the Republican establishment.
"The Washington establishment is coming unglued," Gingrich said Sunday before several thousand people in the Villages. "I am not running for president to manage the decay of the U.S. to the satisfaction of the establishment. And I am not running for president of the U.S. to make the Wall Street elite and the Washington elite happy."
Gingrich made the case across the state as polls showed Mitt Romney opening his lead heading into Tuesday's Florida primary. Gingrich vowed to continue his campaign and asserted that his rival will struggle to secure the needed delegates before the August Republican National Convention in Tampa.
"I think Romney's got a very real challenge," Gingrich said after attending morning services at Idlewild Baptist Church in north Tampa.
Gingrich is trying to harness the conflicted energy coursing through the Republican Party. Romney has the money, the organization and the looks of a winner. But on the ground level, there is angst over his past moderate positions.
It is the same dynamic that early on marked Florida's 2010 U.S. Senate race, where Marco Rubio challenged establishment pick Charlie Crist, and in the national congressional elections that year that saw a wave of successful tea party candidates.
"It's a battle between the grass roots Republican electorate, which is conservative, and the party apparatus, which has turned moderate," lamented John Bassford, 49, of Jacksonville, who supports Gingrich. "When we start going up against (President Barack) Obama, that's going to nourish everybody. The party apparatus know that. That's why we won't get the conservative candidate we need."
Sarah Rumpf, a conservative activist and attorney from Orlando who recently decided to back Romney, said she was mocked on Twitter as a "sellout."
"It took me a long time to get there, but I did it honestly," she said. "There are a lot of people in the state who I respect who have been backing Romney for a long time. Yes, we need to shake up Washington. I don't think Gingrich's combative style is the way you get that done."
A Jan. 25-27 NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed a 15-percentage-point lead for Romney over Gingrich among likely primary voters in Florida, even larger than Romney's 11-point advantage in the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
The NBC poll showed how Romney is improving his position among conservatives and tea party voters, but still performs best among Republicans who say they are not tea party supporters and those who describe themselves as liberal or moderate.
Florida Republicans who describe themselves as very conservative favor Gingrich, with 36 percent support, compared with 29 percent for Rick Santorum and 24 percent for Romney.
In Naples, a confident Romney mocked Gingrich for making excuses about his problems.
"The first debate (in Florida), of course the audience was quiet and Speaker Gingrich said that threw him off, he can't debate before a quiet audience. Then the next audience was very loud, very loud, and he said that threw him off, he can't debate before a real loud audience. It's like Goldilocks you know, it has to be just so," Romney said.
"He's on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks are the reasons he's had difficulty here in Florida. But you know we've got a president who has a lot of excuses, and the excuses are over, it's time to produce."
Romney and his allies have hurled a barrage of negative TV ads at Gingrich, who arrived in Florida fresh off a big victory in South Carolina. Gingrich has gone negative, too, and has a super PAC backing him, but Romney outmatches him.
In the Villages, dominated by Republicans, where Gingrich visited Sunday, voters have gotten seven Romney mail pieces in the past week vs. one for Gingrich. The Romney campaign took out a full-page ad in the Villages' Daily Sun that consisted of a letter from former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole shredding Gingrich as a loose cannon.
As Gingrich stepped out of his bus with his wife, Callista, he urged the crowd to take to Facebook, Twitter, email, phones, "even seeing people face to face, the old-fashioned way."
He launched into his usual critique of Obama but also spent considerable time attacking Romney, at one point calling him a "liberal," a notch above the moderate label he's been tagging him with. He invoked Sarah Palin, who all but endorsed him Saturday night on Fox. And Gingrich said former rival Herman Cain's endorsement Saturday night was "further proof that this is a grass roots movement against the establishment."
The crowed cheered in agreement. "We the people are tired of the GOP handpicking a candidate and shoving it down our throats. That's what's going on with Romney," said Jack Pritchard, 70, a member of several local tea party groups.
"Most people are seeing the ads, seeing where the majority is going and going for Romney. Americans are lazy," said Ken Labrie, 59. "Romney's not conservative like he would like us to think he is."
But there were also signs people are buying into the Romney electability argument and fretting over Gingrich's weaknesses.
The sentiment was evident at a Romney rally last week in Orlando, where a number of people amid the enthusiastic crowd expressed lukewarm or reluctant support of the front-runner.
"In my heart, I'm a Newt guy," said Jose Rodriguez, 41. "But I'll probably end up voting for Romney just to give him support of the state. Just to stay on message."
Romney gets his shot at the Villages today and he'll hold a rally in Dunedin's Pioneer Park at 2 p.m. Gingrich will crisscross the state, including a 1 p.m. stop at Tampa Jet Center.
Rick Santorum, the third candidate campaigning in Florida, missed most of the day because his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, was hospitalized in Philadelphia. Still, a crowd of about 500 turned out for a rally in Sarasota, where Santorum's daughter, Elizabeth, said he, too, would continue the campaign past Florida.
Information from the Bradenton Herald was used in this report.