Gingrich, Romney crisscross Florida trading jabs and looking for votes

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks to a crowd of supporters at Page Field in Fort Myers on Monday afternoon. Gingrich made last minute campaign stops in five different cities in the state.

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Scott McIntyre/Staff Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks to a crowd of supporters at Page Field in Fort Myers on Monday afternoon. Gingrich made last minute campaign stops in five different cities in the state.

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FORT MYERS — Newt Gingrich brought Herman Cain and Ronald Reagan's son, Michael, with him to Southwest Florida in a last-ditch plea for votes as he and his chief rival, Mitt Romney, crisscrossed the state Monday before today's election.

Romney maintained pressure on Gingrich, denouncing his ties to government-backed mortgage firm Freddie Mac. Gingrich, meanwhile, pumped his conservative credentials while describing Romney as "liberal" and a member of the political establishment.

Three Florida polls released Monday show Romney leading the former House Speaker by several percentage points. But Gingrich, addressing about 400 at Page Field, said he was encouraged by signs of a narrowing gap.

Florida voters saw a flurry of campaign activity in the past week, building toward today's GOP primary vote. The vote, Gingrich said, was a choice between "people power" and "money power," a reference to the vast sums Romney has poured into his campaign.

"We need your help in reaching out to everyone you know," Gingrich said, asking the mostly over-40 crowd to use Facebook and Twitter to spread his message.

Gingrich embarked on a five-city spree Monday, hitting major media markets in time for the local evening news. Fort Myers was his fourth stop, landing at Page Field around 4 p.m. and speaking for 19 minutes.

Romney, meanwhile, stumped in Jacksonville, Dunedin near St. Petersburg and The Villages.

"With a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow," an upbeat Romney told a crowd of several hundred in Dunedin.

The two candidates turned their attention on each other Monday, unconcerned about the two other Republican contenders, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who have moved past Florida and are trailing in the polls. The top vote getter in today's election will win all of Florida's 50 delegates.

Romney renewed attacks on his rival as an untrustworthy, Washington influence peddler at the outset of two separate appearances Monday. Just as he did at a packed downtown Naples rally Sunday, Romney claimed Gingrich's consulting work at Freddie Mac has hurt the former House Speaker in a state wracked by foreclosures.

"He made $1.6 million in his company, the very institution that helped stand behind the huge housing crisis here in Florida," Romney said in Dunedin. Gingrich's consulting firm received more than $1.5 million from the mortgage giant over a period after he left Congress in 1999.

Romney also mocked Gingrich's ambition to establish a moon colony under his presidency.

In Fort Myers, Gingrich fired back, saying the former Massachusetts governor is uninspiring to conservatives and would struggle in the general election against President Barack Obama.

"I don't see how a Massachusetts liberal is going to do better than the moderates we ran in 1996 and 2008," said Gingrich, referring to unsuccessful GOP nominees Bob Dole and John McCain.

Hoping to accent his record as a "true conservative," Gingrich arrived in Fort Myers with Michael Reagan, the eldest son of President Ronald Reagan.

"What better way to cut through the baloney than to have Michael Reagan come here and stand by me and communicate the truth?" Gingrich said.

Cain electrified the unsuspecting crowd by taking the stage on his way to a spot on the Fox News show "Hannity" in New York City. The businessman and former presidential candidate endorsed Gingrich over the weekend and spent Monday campaigning for him.

For Dave and Bonnie Ennis, of Fort Myers Beach, the potshots between Romney and Gingrich are counterproductive. The two said they will vote for Santorum today but would vote for any Republican in November.

"It isn't looking good for the party," Dave Ennis said as he waited for Gingrich, running 45 minutes late, at Page Field.

Some consider Florida a key primary state because of its size and diversity. Regardless of today's outcome, Gingrich has said he will continue his campaign through the summer. Paul has said the same.

Dick Jones, 70, of Cape Coral, said he considers Romney too moderate and said he has been a Gingrich fan since 1994, when he won leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. He said having a nominee willing to compromise with Democrats was a liability and that the GOP needs a hard line conservative.

"That's the only way we're going to save this country," he said. "The only way."

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