Rivals keep sniping as Florida vote nears

Surrogates on attack as well in 2-man fight

brian snyder/reuters
The former Massachusetts governor had plenty of help in Florida, including John McCain, whom he hugged at a rally.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. - Newt Gingrich launched a frontal attack on Mitt Romney’s integrity yesterday as the former Massachusetts governor, content to let a barrage of ads and a growing cadre of Republican lawmakers blast away at Gingrich, reached out to voters to help him reestablish the primacy of his candidacy with a win Tuesday in Florida.

“You cannot debate somebody who is dishonest,’’ Gingrich told reporters, in explaining his lackluster performance in Thursday’s debate. “I can’t debate somebody who won’t tell the truth.’’

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Newt Gingrich questioned Mitt Romney’s integrity yesterday.

Gingrich’s attempt to splatter the core of Romney’s image echoes his most recent ad, which refers to him as untrustworthy, and is expected to be a focus of his efforts to regain his footing in Florida after a pair of weak debate performances and sagging poll numbers. With its winner-take-all 50 delegates at stake, the primary probably will determine whether Romney regains an aura of invincibility or whether the race to the nomination becomes a drawn-out battle of attrition.

The primary has become a two-man contest between Romney and Gingrich, with several prominent former and current Republican lawmakers continuing to pummel the former House speaker as an erratic leader who would undercut the party’s chances to unseat President Obama in the fall.

That effort has spawned a backlash by anti-Washington Tea Party supporters, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who last night said in an online post that the GOP establishment were cannibals seeking to “kneecap’’ Gingrich. Also last night, former rival Herman Cain, who dropped out late last year amid several accusations of unwanted sexual advances, endorsed Gingrich. The former Godfather’s Pizza executive said Gingrich was the right person to address the “crisis of leadership in the White House.’’

Of the other two candidates, former senator Rick Santorum returned to his home in Pennsylvania and Representative Ron Paul is focusing on caucus states that vote next month, a strategy that plays to his strength of passionate supporters and a strong organization.

Gingrich bristled yesterday when asked what he will do if he loses Florida.

“I will go all the way to the convention,’’ he said. “I expect to win the nomination. You just had two national polls that show me ahead.

“Why don’t you ask Governor Romney what he’s going to do if he loses?’’

Romney was joined at the Fish House restaurant in military-rich Pensacola by an unusual trio of actor Jon Voight, Senator John McCain, and Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Both Voight, a noted conservative, and McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, were unsparing in their assessment of Gingrich.

“I do not understand - do you? - why anyone would attack a person who’s successful in business, in the free enterprise system!’’ McCain said, alluding to Gingrich’s criticism of Romney’s career at Bain Capital. “That is a sign of desperation.’’

Romney mentioned Gingrich only once, using the opportunity to mock him for his debate performances.

“This last one, Speaker Gingrich said he didn’t do so well because the audience was so loud. The one before, he said he didn’t so well because the audience was too quiet,’’ Romney said. “This is like Goldilocks, you know. You’ve got to have it just right.’’

Both sides have been airing blistering ads that were sparking controversy not only for content, but for video footage used.

Romney’s ad, airing statewide, pointedly reminds voters Gingrich was reprimanded by the House in 1997. The 30-second spot displays Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News, reporting on the ethics charges, which resulted in a formal reprimand and a $300,000 fine.

The only other voice in the ad is Romney’s, saying he approved of the message. NBC’s legal department sent a letter asking the Romney campaign to remove the ad, and Brokaw said in a statement he was “extremely uncomfortable’’ with his image being used so extensively in a political ad. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said the campaign was reviewing NBC’s letter but believed it fell within fair use laws.

Gingrich is airing a scathing ad that features a clip from one of Mike Huckabee’s ads in 2008, in which the former Arkansas governor says, “If a man’s dishonest to get a job, he’ll be dishonest on the job.’’ Huckabee, who has not endorsed anyone, has said he disapproved of the ad and wanted it to be taken down.

Meanwhile, the campaign by many Republicans to paint Gingrich as alarmingly ill-suited to be president continued. At one of Gingrich’s events, at a putting green at the PGA Museum of Golf in Port St. Lucie, Romney sent three Republican members of the US House - Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Connie Mack of Florida, and Mack’s wife, Mary Bono Mack of California - to serve as his own “truth squad.’’

“He’s a great thinker and a great historian,’’ said Bass, who served when Gingrich was speaker. “But the president is an administrator, not a philosopher. And a lot of times, he has to make decisions about hiring and firing. And Newt is a thinker, and it isn’t a fit.’’

R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, confronted both Bass and Connie Mack, sparring with them as reporters held out their audio recorders.

“Congressman, did you regret asking Newt for his endorsement earlier this year?’’ Hammond asked Bass. “He wrote a very nice op-ed in one of your papers asking that you be reelected.’’

Bass just smiled and said it was good to see Hammond, who is from New Hampshire.

Asked about the members of Congress bird-dogging his events, Gingrich said it does not reflect well on Romney. “Does the term desperation come to mind?’’ he said. “I think it’s a fair match. They send a member of Congress; we send R.C.’’

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