NAPLES, Fla. — Seeking to deliver a knockout punch to Newt Gingrich in Tuesday’s Florida primary, Mitt Romney and his surrogates continued their heavy assault on the former House speaker’s record, urging voters to study his temperament, his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac and the ethics investigation into his fundraising in the 1990s.
As a Romney rally got started before a crowd of several thousand people outside a theater in downtown Naples on Sunday, Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fla., contrasted Gingrich’s “very checkered past when it comes to ethics and honesty” with Romney, whom Mack said has lived his life “honestly, with integrity and character.”
Echoing that line a few minutes later, Mack’s father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, R-Fla., called Mitt and Ann Romney “role models for all Americans” and said the former Massachusetts governor has “presidential temperament.”
“A lot of people say he looks presidential. And you do!” the former senator said. “But the important thing is, he acts like a president. Under fire, under attack, under challenge. He responds as a cool, calm and collected man, a person that we need in the White House.”
Romney keyed off his strong performances in two recent debates, as well as an NBC/Marist preference poll released Sunday morning that showed him leading Gingrich by 15 percentage points in Florida. He accused Gingrich of “making excuses” for his sliding poll numbers during the Sunday morning talk shows.
“He’s on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he’s had difficulty here in Florida,” Romney said, “but you know, we’ve got a president who has a lot of excuses, and the excuses are over; it’s time to produce.”
“If we failed somewhere, if we failed the debate, if we failed to get the support of people, it’s time to look in the mirror,” Romney said.
“My own view is the reason that Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is that people of Florida have watched the debates, have listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, ‘You know what, Mitt Romney’s the guy we’re going to support.’“
Regarding Gingrich’s role as an adviser for Freddie Mac, Romney noted that the mortgage giant’s troubles have been a sensitive issue in Florida, which has more than a quarter of the homes in foreclosure in the U.S.
Romney argued that the efforts of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to guarantee mortgages to “people who couldn’t possibly pay them back” were among the “greatest contributors to the collapse of housing here and across the country.”
“At the time some people were standing up and saying we need to reform this system, Speaker Gingrich was getting paid $1.6 million to stand up and do what he did, which is to say: ‘These programs should continue the way they are, these institutions are fine,’ “ Romney said.
Romney added that the work Gingrich’s firm did for Freddie Mac had contributed to his difficulty in Florida, and continued to mock Gingrich for complaining about the varying receptions that the GOP candidates have received from recent debate audiences.
“Mr. Speaker, your trouble in Florida is not because the audience is too quiet or too loud, or because you have opponents that are tough,” Romney said in Naples. “Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people, and that you’re selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth.”
Gingrich has disputed Romney’s characterization of his firm’s work for Freddie Mac, arguing that he was hired because of his expertise as a historian. During a November debate, he said he “offered them advice on precisely what they didn’t do” and that he warned the mortgage giant, “This is a bubble. This is insane.”
Bloomberg published a story disputing Gingrich’s account after interviewing people familiar with Gingrich’s work who said they did not recall Gingrich warning about the company’s business model.