JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Retaliating against the Mitt Romney campaign for sending surrogates to campaign events for Newt Gingrich, a super PAC supporting the former House speaker invaded a Romney event on Monday and claimed that Romney "thinks he can buy and sell voters."
Meanwhile, Gingrich campaigned in this key primary state with presidential offspring Michael Reagan by his side, part of his strategy to out-Reagan Romney, as a relaxed Romney said momentum is in his direction.
The developments were the latest escalation in the now bitter rivalry between Romney and Gingrich in Florida, which holds a crucial primary Tuesday that could set the winner on the road to the GOP nomination for president. Both of the front-running candidates hit the road on the eve of the primary.
At Romney's first event of the day, Rick Tyler, who runs the Winning Our Future PAC backing Gingrich's candidacy, told reporters, "He has a long history of buying and selling things. But I'm shocked that he thinks he can buy and sell voters ... I don't know how you debate a congenital liar."
Tyler bristled at reports that the Romney camp has been purposely trying to make Gingrich mad so he will lose his temper in public settings and during the candidate debates, which plays into the candidate's description of his rival as "unhinged."
Romney's "whole team has told everyone Newt's an angry person. Newt's not an angry person," said Tyler, a former aide to Gingrich. "I've known him for 12 years. I've never known him to be angry. He's been upset, like all of us have been upset, but he wasn't angry. And he certainly wasn't angry on the debate stage, so Romney failed."
Tyler's appearance at a Romney event comes after Republican House members, including Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Connie Mack of Florida and Mack's wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Calif., dropped in uninvited to Gingrich's events in recent days and made critical remarks about the candidate to reporters traveling with Gingrich.
The choice of Tyler as a surrogate points to the lack of support Gingrich has among his former colleagues. Despite his rise to the top job in the House, his leadership style proved unpopular with rank-and-file members.
Although super PACs under the law have to be separate from the campaigns they support, Tyler's comments, including the consistent use of the word "we," showed how difficult it has been for the campaigns to maintain distance during this campaign, the first since a change in the law made unlimited corporate donations to such PACs possible.
"We started here with like a 24-point deficit, and then we were slightly ahead and now we're slightly behind," Tyler said. "We've been outspent 7-to-1, so you know I think we've done well in Florida. We're going all the way to the convention," he said, sounding like the campaign spokesman he once was. "We'll see you all there. I'm sorry, we're going to make this exciting."
At the event, Romney continued his nonstop criticism of his main rival in the primary, hitting him again for his consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
"He said after the first debate that he didn't do well because the crowd was so quiet it threw him off. The second debate he said he didn't do well because the crowd was so loud. I think the real reason he hasn't done so well connecting with the people of Florida is that people actually saw him in those debates and listened to his background, his experience and learned, for instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. And they said that's not what we want in the White House," said Romney.
Chatting with reporters on his campaign plane later, Romney was relaxed and expressed confidence about his prospects in Florida, where polls over the last two days show him with a substantial lead over Gingrich, his nearest rival, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. The fourth candidate still in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is not actively competing in Florida.
"It feels good at this point," he said. "In South Carolina, the crowds were good, but you could sense that it wasn't going our way. Here, the crowds are good, and you can sense it's coming our way. It's getting better and better every day."
Romney lost by double digits to Gingrich in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21. Asked by a reporter how he could tell the difference between the two, the candidate said, "It's the people that you talk to that are organizing. It's the activists that are making the calls. So, you know, you see a big rally and those are exciting any time you go anywhere, but it's the folks afterwards that I talk to (who) are organizing the events and making calls, and they say, 'Yeah, we're calling people and more and more people are saying they're with you and breaking your way and so that's how you get a sense of it.'"
Also asked about the Gingrich camp vowing to stay in the race all the way to the Republican convention in late August, Romney said he's not worried. "That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," he said. "When you say I'm going to go on no matter what happens, that's not a good sign."