For Mitt Romney in Florida, It’s All About Character (Attacks)

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Pompano Beach, Florida

A political riddle presents itself on the trail with Mitt Romney: Can a true man of character constantly attack the character of another man?

From the first introductions on Sunday, character was presented as the defining, most winning attribute of the former governor: Romney was touted as the candidate whose moral qualities are most developed, whose forthrightness is most apparent. Meanwhile, the Romney camp has been sending a steady stream of attack ads, surrogates and snarky quips into the world, hoping to undermine Newt Gingrich once and for all.

“He’s honest. He’s fair,” said Florida Rep. Connie Mack, as he introduced Romney at a morning rally in Naples. “This is a man who has lived his life, every step of his life, honestly, with integrity and character.” This is the same Mack who showed up on Gingrich’s turf Saturday and scuffled with the Speaker’s press secretary. At the Speaker’s event, Mack reminded attendees and reporters of Freddie Mac—the institution, Romney insinuated throughout Sunday, that Gingrich was paid oodles to promote just so it could push Florida mortgages into forecloseure.

(MORE: Why Romney is Winning Florida and What Comes Next)

Former Florida Senator Connie Mack III took the mic after his son. The reason he supports Romney, first and foremost? “He’s a man of character,” he said. “Under attack, under challenge, he responds as a cool, calm, collected man, a person that we need in the White House.” (After the rally, Mack Sr. told TIME he thought Romney would carry the state by as much as 12 points, numbers that reflect leads from polls conducted over the weekend.)

A calm, cool Romney then spoke and within 30 seconds, he was mocking Gingrich, likening his opponent to Goldilocks: Gingrich said the audience in the first debate was too quiet, and too loud in the second. “It has to be juuuust so,” Romney said. “If we fail in debates or we fail to get the support of people, it’s time to look in the mirror.” Assaults on Gingrich’s ability to lead and his history of “influence peddling” continued throughout the day, as Romney drew a picture of a grasping, flawed man overstaying his welcome in the Sunshine State.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Many attendees at the events picked up the refrain. “He’s a gentleman,” said a 79-year-old independent voter, when asked what she most liked about Romney. “He comes with no baggage. He’s a straight-forward guy, married a lot of years. No problems. He’s not gonna be chasin’ women around the White House,” said Roy Bartlett, an engineer who migrated south from Pittsburgh.

Romney may not have the same problems and personal baggage as twice-divorced, gaffe-prone Gingrich, but he has plenty of political baggage: flip-flops on gay rights, cap and trade, gun laws and abortion. In a floundering moment at an afternoon rally in Haileah, Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attempted to counter ads aimed at Romney’s pro-life credentials. “Romney is a wonderful new believer, for a while now,” she said emphatically, if a little off message.

One senior Romney aide said the campaign was pushed into its offensive state after Gingrich launched more personal affronts. The most character-damning ads in recent weeks attacked Romney’s record at Bain Capital, portraying him as a heartless businessman with no consideration for those who might lose livelihoods while he gained profits. “The idea that Newt Gingrich would launch a character attack against Mitt Romney is particularly offensive,” says senior adviser Stuart Stevens. “There are certain things you don’t let go unanswered.”

So they have been responding in-kind. On Sunday morning, the campaign released a web video called “Credits,” which runs the names of all members of Congress who had voted to reprimand Gingrich when he was Speaker. (Point being: It’s a long list.) This followed an ad released on Friday that featured Tom Brokaw as the messenger; in 1997 footage from NBC Nightly News, he tells of the investigation into ethics violations and Gingrich’s tenuous role as the head of the House.

Romney approved the message, but Brokaw was not a willing surrogate. NBC News asked the campaign to pull down the spot. Still, by objecting to the ad, NBC made sure it would be run many more times on the news, at no cost to the Romney camp. Watching television on Saturday night, Floridians could have seen other attack ads from the Romney campaign followed by even more from his allies’ super PAC, Restore Our Future.

“This type of thing happens in almost every campaign. People deal with it and they kind of move on,” the elder Mack said when asked about the negative tone Romney had been taking. “If he gets blowback, everybody gets blowback.” The everybody’s-doing-it defense is an easy one. There is an assumption, among many voters and politicians alike, that going negative in ads (and elsewhere) is a necessary evil. “I don’t like any of them. They sound so desperate,” said Marilyn Zimmerman, a retiree who attended the morning rally. “Probably most candidates don’t want to do it, but it’s such an accepted political practice now.”

On Monday morning, the day before Florida’s primary, a Quinnipiac University poll found Romney leading Gingrich by 14 points. People were surveyed over the weekend, meaning they may well have seen the barrage that started last week and continued through at least Sunday.

Update, 9:45 a.m.: Just as Romney started to let up on Gingrich at an event in Jacksonville on Monday morning, aiming his barbs almost entirely at Obama in his speech, the Gingrich team finally got into the surrogate game. Newt man Rick Tyler, of the Gingrich-allied super PAC Winning Our Future, arrived at the Romney rally. He said he came of his own accord and ran toward reporters to berate Romney for his negative campaigning.

Noting Romney’s team had outspent them 5-to-1, Tyler seemed fed up. “Romney has proved to be a disgraceful and despicable candidate,” he said, citing the attacks on Gingrich’s time at Freddie Mac and the conditions under which he resigned as Speaker. “He has no character.”

“There’s nothing people don’t know about Newt,” he said. He also said that people don’t know the truth about Newt. But it’s likely too late for surrogate protests about the details of Gingrich’s history to make much difference with Florida voters heading to the polls tomorrow.