With Gingrich on the Trail in Florida, Romney Surrogates Are Never Far Behind

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Matt Rourke / AP

Newt Gingrich answers questions from the media at a news conference at the The PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Port St. Lucie, Florida

Newt Gingrich’s rallies have taken on certain characteristics as he crisscrosses Florida. There are the ubiquitous Reagan references. (Gingrich seems bent on drafting the ghost of the Gipper as his running mate.) There are the encomiums to the wonder of space flight. (A symbol of America’s lost promise, as well as a targeted pander.) And there is the passel of high-profile Mitt Romney supporters, lurking quietly in enemy territory in a deliberate attempt to rile Gingrich and his staff.

For several days, a few Romney surrogates have shadowed Gingrich across the Sunshine State, following the former Speaker as he held a Tea Party rally in Mt. Dora, met with Hispanic voters in Miami and commiserated with a coalition of Republican Jews in Delray Beach. Saturday was no different. On a sun-splashed morning in Port St. Lucie, Congressmen Connie Mack and Charlie Bass, both Mitt boosters, and Romney adviser Dave Kochel, arrived early to a Gingrich speech at the PGA Museum of Golf, where a crowd gathered on a putting green to hear Gingrich’s pitch.

As the interlocutors tell it, there is no official campaign strategy behind crashing Gingrich’s parties. Romney surrogates say they are lured by their own curiosity and the chance to speak with voters. “I’m here because I want to hear his answer on Freddie Mac,” insists Mack, who says he secured the blessing of “top folks” at Romney campaign headquarters before tailing Gingrich around the state, embarking on a sort of spin-room roadshow.

In truth, the infiltration is part of a multi-pronged blitz Romney’s Boston brain trust launched this week in an effort to knock Gingrich off his stride. Mack seems less interested in the former Speaker and his legions of supporters than in the reporters shaping the narrative emanating from the candidate’s events. “Is he going to talk about Freddie?” Mack, who is running for a Senate seat in Florida, asked several reporters as Gingrich began his stump speech in Port St. Lucie. Bass, his companion, came equipped with a ready made-zinger, telling reporters that “listening to Gingrich is like swimming in a warm bowl of soup.” The simile was confusing, but it made good copy.

Shadowing Gingrich adds a colorful wrinkle to Romney’s attempt to smother Gingrich before the winner-take-all Florida primary. And while it may strike some voters as unseemly, it’s also effective. By “bracketing” Gingrich, as one Romney surrogate put it, the former Massachusetts governor’s team of trackers have siphoned off the free media that has been the lifeblood of Gingrich’s unconventional campaign.

They’ve also gotten under the skin of Gingrich and his press secretary, R.C. Hammond. For three straight days, Hammond has confronted Romney surrogates who have ventured onto Gingrich turf. On Thursday, he grabbed a tape recorder and marched up to Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, firing questions about mortgage policy as gobsmacked reporters looked on. On Friday, the pair skirmished again in Delray Beach, again encircled by members of the press who quickly wrote up the exchange.

After Gingrich finished his speech in Port St. Lucie, Hammond lingered in the crowd, sipping a Pepsi and glaring at the trio of Romney surrogates chatting up reporters. “I’d like to light into Charlie Bass,” he said. And so he did, walking over to fire hostile questions at Bass and Mack.

“Congressman, do you regret asking Newt for his endorsement earlier this year?” Hammond asked Mack.

“Has Newt answered the question about Freddie Mac yet? Was he a lobbyist?” Mack retorted. “The Florida voters deserve to know.” The playground scuffle stretched on for a minute or two until the Romney folks strolled away. “I think it’s funny when they leave when I show up,” Hammond says.

At a press conference after the kerfuffle, Gingrich shrugged off the tactics. “It’s a free country,”  he said. “Does the term desperation come to mind? I think it’s a fair match. They send members of Congress, we send R.C. R.C.’s a little bit more informed than they are.”

Gingrich might be ambivalent, but Romney’s advisers are delighted by the confrontations, which they believe accentuate their portrait of Gingrich’s campaign as an “unhinged,” or at least uneven and hot-tempered, outfit. Hammond declined to say whether Gingrich encouraged him to challenge the Romney interlopers, but says, “He certainly hasn’t discouraged it.”

For now, Romney’s proxies are having a blast. “Are you guys following us around?” Mack asked a group of reporters eating lunch outside Port St. Lucie. “We’ll see you in Orlando.” But once they arrived, there was hardly anything to mock. Some 65 supporters had congregated in a cavernous Hispanic church on the city’s outskirts, barely filling one-quarter of the pews by the time Gingrich showed up nearly an hour late. The candidate spoke for less than 1o minutes and then scrapped the scheduled Q & A for a quick meet-and-greet before ducking back onto his bus to continue his disintegrating campaign.