TAMPA — Riding his big win in the South Carolina primary, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a Tampa crowd Monday that he's heard former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is stepping up his criticism of him, with more likely to come.
"I prefer personally not to believe it," Gingrich said at a rally in the parking lot of The River Church, east of Tampa. "But on the other hand, if you've been campaigning for six years, and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate, and when you get desperate you say almost anything, and I think (at) tonight's debate he'll probably stretch the barrier."
To prepare for the debate at the University of South Florida, Gingrich said he had been memorizing old debate lines, like Ronald Reagan's "There you go again."
"I think I'll finally convince him I really am a Reaganite if I use President Reagan's line," the former House speaker said. "This is such baloney. It used to be pious baloney. Now it's just desperate baloney."
The central question in the Jan. 31 Florida primary is simple, Gingrich said.
"Who do you think has the ability to go toe-to-toe in the debates with Barack Obama?" he said.
Better than Romney, Gingrich said he can draw a distinction between himself and the president on issues like health care and foreign policy.
Gingrich's remarks were briefly interrupted by two hecklers, one who said he was no Reagan conservative.
"I'm not a Reagan conservative?" Gingrich responded. "Did you know Ronald Reagan? In 1980, I was campaigning for him, and in 1981 I helped pass his program, and so..."
At the second and third interruptions, with the crowd booing and chanting, Gingrich said it was okay.
"It is a free country, you know, and Mitt's allowed to have two people out of this number," he said.
It's got a big laugh and a big cheer, but the more vocal of the two, paralegal student Dianna Barrios, 46, of Tampa, said she was no Romney supporter, either. Rather, she wanted to challenge Gingrich on how he can appeal "to independents and moderates with his right-wing extremism."
"It's very sour and angry," said Barrios, a Democrat.
But to the vast majority of the crowd, Gingrich offered a tonic for a country gone wrong.
"As far as we're concerned, he's the last chance America has to keep from becoming a socialistic nation," said retired businessman Don Kelley, 69, of West Chase. "Without him, we don't have a hope."
Gingrich is intelligent, has an excellent grasp of the issues, and people found out who he was at the last debate when he "knocked it out of the park" in answering a question about his second wife's allegation that Gingrich wanted an open marriage, Kelley said.
"I don't think that that is an issue," Kelley said. "I'm not electing his ex-wife. I'm electing him to do a job for me. ... There are no perfect candidates out there. You're not going to find one. They've all got some kind of baggage."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.