Newt Gingrich is angry and that makes Mitt Romney sad. The former speaker is slipping badly in the polls in Florida and unloading on his way down. He's called Romney "deceitful," "maniacal," and "misleading." He’s also rendered a historical verdict: Romney's campaign is the most dishonest he's ever seen. That cluster of deceit makes Romney unqualified to be president, says Gingrich. I asked Romney about these charges on his campaign bus Sunday night. "We look for qualities in a president. We don’t look for whining and excuses," he said. "The wrong side of Newt Gingrich is being revealed, and it’s actually quite sad and painful."
Painful to Newt Gingrich. Romney spoke, his hands in his lap, in the practiced more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of a principal speaking about a student he gladly expelled. An adviser explained what was really going on: "We are not going to let our boot off Gingrich's neck."
It's working. Heading into Tuesday night’s vote in Florida, Romney is ahead by double digits in a series of polls. (A Suffolk University poll has him up by 20 points.) Romney is up, and he's got Gingrich pinned down. It's not just that Romney's attacks are working. They are also robbing Gingrich of his voice. As a Gingrich ally explained, the sniping back and forth hurts Gingrich because it keeps him from offering the kind of positive message that helped him win in South Carolina. The wounded speaker is vowing to fight the battle all the way to the convention, questioning Romney's character all the way. If week after week of bitter rhetoric is the pattern for the primary to come, the question will not be whether Gingrich can win—he can't—but how much damage he does to Romney and the party.
Newt Gingrich once reportedly said that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty." No danger of that anymore. Romney has won back the front-runner slot through a relentless assault on his rival. After South Carolina, the Romney team decided to leave no Gingrich attack unanswered. Privately, they describe Gingrich as a bully who can't take a punch. "He's never won an exchange that hasn't been with a member of the press who can't fight back," said one.
Romney used to let his staff and surrogates soften up Gingrich. Now he takes on Gingrich in every stump speech. In Hialeah, Fla., on Sunday, Romney compared Gingrich's excuse-making for his bad debate performances to Obama's excuses for why the economy isn't doing better. Speaking to a heavily Cuban-American crowd in the parking lot outside Casa Marin restaurant, he hit Gingrich hardest on his contract with Freddie Mac and career as a Washington insider: "You don't change Washington by having some people change seats."
The attacks seem to be working. According to a Miami Herald poll, 52 percent of Florida voters had a negative view of Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac compared with 28 percent who saw it positively. Gingrich's efforts to make Romney's work for Bain a similar liability have not paid off. Three-quarters of Republican voters said they had a positive view of Romney’s business background at Bain Capital. Only 13 percent had a negative impression.
The Romney counterattack reached its apogee in a synchronized sequence of umbrage-taking Sunday afternoon. In the morning, Gingrich repeated his claims that Romney wasn't telling the truth. Not long after, the Romney campaign issued a press release with comments from Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen decrying the assault on the candidate’s character. It was a flotilla of fainting couches, as seasoned politicians expressed shock that Gingrich was engaging in the familiar tactic of questioning his opponent's veracity.
A character attack was answered with a character attack. The message was that Gingrich crossed a line. This was an attack on Gingrich's temperament—an assertion that Gingrich was too much of a hothead to handle the presidency. He is "casting about and flailing as the pressure in the campaign has gotten higher," said Romney.
The Romney campaign was trying to get into Gingrich's head, and it appears to have worked. In South Carolina, voters said Gingrich spoke to their conservative heart. Romney advisers say the 22-point switch in polls in the state took place after Gingrich's extended tussle with Juan Williams over racial sensitivity. "Williams was a stand-in for Barack Obama in people's minds," said one Romney adviser. Gingrich didn't repeat that performance during the Florida debates, and all of his other time was spent answering charges from Romney or complaining about them. He was also buried under negative ads, outspent by five to one. All of this effectively rendered him mute. What little space was left, Gingrich botched, driving himself off message by pushing the idea of a lunar base.