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Romney tries out the face of a fighter

He felt the need to fight, and I suppose that makes sense.

Mitt Romney had been embarrassed in South Carolina and was tumbling in Florida, so he woke up Monday morning with menace on his mind.

He attacked Newt Gingrich for a terrible deed, and then accused him of an awful thing. The details aren't as important as the apparent desperation behind the strategy.

This was an aggressive Romney. An indignant Romney. A defiant Romney. Which meant you could now add fighter to the list of personas he has tried on.

Personally, I'd prefer to finally see an authentic Romney.

I'm guessing this, as much as anything, accounts for a near-incomprehensible collapse against one of the most unpopular politicians in America. It is less a referendum on Gingrich's ability to govern, than a statement of Romney's inability to connect.

And so we had Romney in the uncomfortable role of tough guy in Monday night's debate at the University of South Florida. He said Gingrich "resigned in disgrace'' as House speaker, using a line that was already old before he repeated it three more times. Romney hammered him for being an "influence peddler'' in Washington, and for the absurdity of receiving a $1.6-million salary from Freddie Mac for what Gingrich said was work as a "historian.''

There were times when Romney's jabs connected, and times when they seemed too scripted. There were times when Gingrich appeared flustered, and times when he fought back effectively.

Remarkably, there were times when they both made Rick Santorum seem more presidential.

And when it was all done, I'm just not sure Romney's roundhouses helped solve his greatest problem.

In a lot of ways, Romney is the Republican version of Al Gore. The son of a politician who surpassed his father in fame, but never quite graduated to beloved.

He's polite, looks great in pinstripes and has spent most of his life in campaign mode, but he's not the first guy you would choose to ride shotgun on a college football road trip.

And this is where Romney has a problem compared to Gingrich. It is not because of income tax returns, and it is not because of Bain Capital. It is because Gingrich seems authentic, and Romney seems vaguely robotic.

Just think of the insane contradictions Gingrich gets away with just because he has the ability to wink and nod at some percentage of voters.

He's upset about the economy. (Even if he's rich.) He's passionate about getting back to wholesome values. (Even if he's on his third marriage.) He's a by-gosh believer in the U.S. Constitution. (Even if he's threatening to reinvent it by ignoring the judicial branch.)

Gingrich isn't aiming for intellectuals or fact checkers in debates. His attacks are pointed, but not deep. He raises issues, but does not belabor them.

And Gingrich knows this populist path can work against Romney. Michele Bachmann had some success with it. Rick Perry briefly took it to the top of the polls.

The difference is Gingrich can do the conservative walk and chew gum at the same time.

Yet even as Gingrich was surging up the polls in Florida, some of the biggest names in the Republican party were wadding up their cocktail napkins to fling at him.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Gingrich's claim that he was paid to be a "historian'' for Freddie Mac was "just BS.'' New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Gingrich "an embarrassment.'' Ann Coulter called him the "least electable'' of the remaining candidates.

That should be enough. Between surrogate attacks, super PAC ads and the extensive skeleton collection in Gingrich's closet, that should really be enough.

Romney can take his swipes in speeches and debates, and he can raise his eyebrows at the appropriate moment for a good laugh. But playing pit bull for the camera is not his style.

And while voters may not be versed in every debate topic, they're pretty good at spotting a candidate who isn't committed to what he is saying.

To a large degree, elections are about being likable. Being steady. Being someone Americans can trust while they're going about their lives.

With that in mind, Romney shouldn't waste too much time trying to define his opponent. Instead, he had better hurry up and define himself.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Romney tries out the face of a fighter 01/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 12:18am]
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