Times photo, Chris Zuppa
ST. PETERSBURG -- Newt Gingrich stepped onto a podium at the Tick Tock Restaurant with a hometown message.
"As many of you know Jose Mallea is helping us with our campaign. He was Marco Rubio's campaign manager. We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist's campaign people," he said to yelps and a few boos. "That sort of tells you everything you needed to know about this contest."
Yes, Crist is still a whipping boy in Republican circles, though he still turned out for last night's debate.
And, to be fair, Romney has some anti-Crists in his campaign: namely Alberto Martinez and Brett Doster, Florida advisers who worked for Crist's 2006 Republican opponent Tom Gallagher. Doster managed one of now Sen. Marco Rubio's political committees, and Martinez is part of Rubio's inner-circle.
"This is absurd," Martinez said. "Mitt Romney endorsed Marco Rubio before Newt Gingrich did, and campaigned aggressively to make sure Marco Rubio defeated Charlie Crist. Besides, no one cares about past elections, they care about this one and defeating Barack Obama and restoring America. Floridians know Mitt Romney is the only conservative who can beat Barack Obama."
Still, a top former Crist adviser, Stuart Stevens, is the top adviser for Romney along with others we had mentioned earlier. NewsMax raised the issue today. And the pro-Gingrich Super Pac Winning Our Future might run ads linking Romney and Crist, perhaps featuring Stevens.
"The only person who would care is my mother," Stevens joked last night, "because she likes to see me on TV."
Gingrich would eventually turn to Romney, casting him as "pretty liberal" given past positions on gay rights, abortion and gun control But he devoted much of his speech before a packed crowd to Obama, casting him as a big government radical. "I would like to run a candidate this fall in which we have a job and paycheck candidate vs. a dependency and food stamp candidate."
"Obama lives in a fantasy land," Gingrich said. "He has notion how complicated the world is. He has no ability to deal with how hard the problems are."
The biggest cheer came when Gingrich said he would ask Congress -- "We need to defeat Bill Nelson," he said -- to repeal "Obamacare."
Eventually, he focused on Romney, who has opened up a blistering assault on Gingrich to stop his surge. "The division is real clear: You can't have a debate between Obamacare and Romneycare because they are too close together," Gingrich said, ignoring his past support for an individual mandate.
"Gov. Romney will have vastly more money than I will," Gingrich said, but suggested he has more grassroots support. "People power beats money power every time."
-- Alex Leary, Marc Caputo