ORMOND BEACH, FL — Mitt Romney upped his rhetoric against both Newt Gingrich and President Obama in his first Florida rally since losing South Carolina, looking to reassure anxious supporters who suffered through the campaign’s toughest week yet.
“We’re not choosing a talk show host, we’re choosing a leader,” Romney said, saying that their nominee should exhibit “integrity,” “sobriety,” and “ethics.”
He called Gingrich a “failed leader” as Speaker who “had to resign in disgrace” and criticized his work as a highly paid consultant for Freddie Mac in his years out of office. “He said he was just a historian there,” Romney said. “I’d like him to release his records there.”
For frustrated Romney fans, the Newt attacks couldn’t come soon enough.
“Tell it it to him in the debates!” one person shouted as Romney began his attack monologue.
“Take the gloves off, Mitt!” another hollered.
Romney drew big applause for his attacks on Obama as well, which mostly stuck to his usual stump speech warning of an “entitlement society” and contained plenty of pointed lines.
“I don’t think he understands the power of free people and free enterprise,” he said. “I think he would change, fundamentally, America.”
“Socialist!” an audience member yelled.
Said Romney: “I think it’s time we had someone in the White House who knows how to create jobs because he’s had a job.”
Mitt certainly read the crowd right. In interviews with TPM, several supporters complained before his speech that Romney had been outflanked recently by Gingrich and needed to turn the tables fast.
“This is a rough week for sure,” Dave Peacock, a 34-year old health care IT analyst who moved to the state from Utah, said. “I’m a little shocked — everything we know about Newt is front page tabloid fodder. People somehow don’t get how damaging his record is. He says ‘how dare you bring up these things,’ but how dare you do these things!”
Peacock said he expected Republicans to rally against Newt fast, but added Romney made his problems worse by not releasing his taxes returns when he was first pressed about them. “People perceived him as having something to hide,” he said.
Charles Hutchinson, 78, an independent planning to vote against Obama in the general, said that Romney’s awkward handling of the tax issue raised electability concerns.
“It puts him in a bad light because he wasn’t prepared,” he said, “And if he’s not prepared in the primary, what happens when he goes up against President Obama?”
Ann Romney raised the tax issue in introducing her husband to the stage, saying that while they would release their returns soon “we know where our riches are — our riches are with our family.”
David Poler, a retired business development executive, and his wife Manuela, a retired flight attendant, had plenty of ideas as to what Mitt was doing wrong. Both were shocked to see him on the ropes over Bain Capital and his tax records in a Republican primary.
“He needs to be less laid back,” Mrs. Poler said. “Lay out succinctly what you did, don’t be on the defensive. This is what people aspire to!”
“Be proud of it,” her husband agreed.
For longtime Romney fan Pam Miller, 57, the former governor’s economic message hits home on a personal level. She and her husband have been in tough straits since the economic crash, struggling to hold onto their home after she lost her job in Maine in mental health crisis intervention (“I went from one crisis to the nation’s crisis,” she says.) She thinks Romney’s demeanor should reflect the passions of supporters like her more.
“I don’t like his vanilla-ness,” she said. “This is the most bland rally I’ve ever been to — if I were his campaign manager I’d tell him to let his hair down, put on his boots and jeans.”
Still, like many supporters, she wasn’t ready to believe Gingrich was anywhere close to grabbing the nomination.
“Newt’s like a see-saw,” she said. “He’ll fall again.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.