Outstumped and Outspent, Newt Gingrich Flounders in Florida

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Ricardo Cases for TIME

The Villages, Florida

For a moment, as he gazed out at the gargantuan crowd gathered in brilliant sunshine, Newt Gingrich caught a glimpse of what might have been. Gingrich arrived at this retirement enclave in central Florida, with its rippling palms and golf-cart gridlock, to a front runner’s welcome. These were Newt’s people. They waved signs and wore his stickers and fanned themselves with copies of a seniors’ magazine graced with Gingrich’s face over the tagline “The thinking conservative.” Feeding off the energy, Gingrich was in fine form, lobbing zingers that delighted a crowd convinced its country has fallen on fallow times. He drew rapturous applause for his attacks on activist judges, the Washington–Wall Street cabal and a President who “bows” to foreign leaders. “I am, in fact, the legitimate heir to the Reagan movement, not some liberal from Massachusetts,” he said. It was vintage Gingrich.

But Nasty Newt, the indignant insurgent who shook up the Republican presidential primary by storming to victory in South Carolina, has been missing in Florida for much of the past week. The bluster that marked his charge in the Palmetto State has dissipated as Mitt Romney has hit his stride. Hobbled by unfocused messaging and questionable campaign tactics, Gingrich appears headed for a blowout loss in the winner-take-all Florida primary on Tuesday, which could crush his hopes of emerging as the lone conservative foil to Romney.

(PHOTOS: Newt Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)

In a sense, the rivals have traded roles. Gingrich likes to contrast Romney’s timidity with his own swaggering style, but as the pair barnstormed through Florida, it was Gingrich who was oddly passive and flatfooted. He griped about Romney’s scorched-earth takeover of the state’s airwaves, the debate audiences, the difficulty of debating an opponent who stretches the truth. (This from a candidate who on Sunday repeatedly called Romney a “pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase moderate.”)

Gingrich wanted to position himself as a front runner who floats above the fray. But he is at his best as a bomb thrower, and he picked a bad week — as the Republican establishment rained down attacks questioning his constancy and character — to suddenly opt for the high road. “His path to victory is his message,” says Susan Auld, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Martin County, Florida. Gingrich’s message grew whiny as Romney’s took on a new edge.

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

Despite his momentum, Gingrich flew south facing considerable challenges. In Florida, the medium for the message is television. The state has 10 expensive media markets, and Romney’s campaign — along with the super PAC supporting the former Massachusetts governor — unleashed a “carpet bombing,” as Gingrich put it, of negative ads outspending the Speaker’s campaign and super PAC by more than 4 to 1. The Gingrich campaign didn’t even buy TV time in the pricey precincts of South Florida. It was too expensive. “We are not a campaign of means,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond says, which is true even despite casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s deep pockets.

Gingrich’s ground game wasn’t sharp enough to neutralize Romney’s organizational advantages either. Heading into Florida, says Hammond, the campaign identified the components of a coalition they believed could carry them to a Sunshine State victory: Hispanics, Zionist Jews, disgruntled former employees of the hollowed-out aeronautics industry, Tea Party members and conservatives in the state’s southwest and panhandle. It was an exercise in microtargeting. To compensate for his campaign’s comparatively meager resources, Gingrich tried to cobble together a coalition by tailoring his speeches to fit the fears and fantasies of each group.

(MOREWith Gingrich on the Trail in Florida, Romney Surrogates Are Never Far Behind)

In Miami, he talked about Puerto Rican statehood and the prospects of a “Cuban spring” on the horizon. In Delray Beach, he stressed the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. On the Space Coast, he made his now infamous pledge to establish a lunar colony by the end of his second term. On Saturday he told a liberty forum in Winter Park that the stem-cell debate amounted to “the use of science to justify desensitizing the society to killing babies,” and on Sunday he visited a Baptist megachurch outside Orlando on “Sanctity of Life Day.”

He has mostly ignored the panhandle,  though he will make the trek there as part of a Monday fly-around on his last full day of campaigning. Nor has he spent much time on the critical I-4 corridor that connects Tampa and Orlando. Jose Mallea, Gingrich’s state director, says the campaign, which includes 14 Florida staffers spread across eight offices, has completed a voter-identification drive and will launch a turnout operation on Monday that includes 150,000 phone calls by volunteers. “We have a good ground game,” he says, albeit one that has been active for just four weeks. Romney, by contrast, has been organizing in the state for months and had already pumped more ad money into Florida by the time the candidates arrived than Gingrich had spent in total. Meanwhile, Gingrich has suffered from iffy scheduling and advance. A Hispanic town hall on Saturday in Orlando was downgraded to a meet and greet when poor turnout left a cavernous church mostly empty. On Sunday, Gingrich traveled more than 200 miles by bus for one rally and a pair of church visits, neither of which he spoke at.

In the end, Gingrich could lose each of the key constituencies his campaign identified. In a recent NBC News/Marist poll, which shows Romney outpacing Gingrich 42% to 27%, the former Massachusetts governor boasts sizable leads among men and (particularly) women as well as Evangelical Christians. The two are in a virtual tie for the Tea Party vote. “His numbers have been steadily dropping in our polls,” says Sal Russo, the unaffiliated chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. In a state where some 1 in 10 Republican voters is Latino, an ABC News/Univision survey found Romney holding a 26-point lead among Hispanics, including a 32-point edge among those of Cuban descent, despite Gingrich’s aggressive courtship of Hispanic voters in the Miami area and Romney’s more conservative stance on immigration. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald poll released on Sunday showed Romney up 26 points in the southeastern portion of the state.

Floridians seem split on why Gingrich has faltered. Kelley Howard, the owner of an agriculture business in Eustis, Fla., says Gingrich was unable to dispel the cloud created by Romney’s ads. “People see Tom Brokaw’s face, and they say this must be true,” she says, referring to a Romney ad featuring footage of Brokaw recounting the resolution of Gingrich’s ethics charges.

“He had a weak performance in the debates,” says Tom Joseph, a former State Department employee from Citrus County. “Romney’s done better research.”

Jean Brewer, a resident of the Villages and a member of the Tricounty Tea Party, blamed the media. “We just want to take our country back,” she says, invoking the movement’s signature cliché.

By the weekend, Gingrich was speaking the Tea Party’s language again, delivering rousing speeches to enthusiastic crowds. Nasty Newt was back. Meeting with reporters on Sunday, he fell back on the talking points that worked in South Carolina: nominating a “Massachusetts moderate” who crafted the template for Obama’s health care bill would be a disaster for a party desperate to dispatch Obama back to Chicago. In the Villages, Gingrich was pithy, charging that Obama had shifted his slogan from “Yes we can” to “Why we couldn’t,” and he spoke passionately about the decline of the American Dream. Electricity coursed through the crowd of about 5,000, and the Speaker looked energized. If only more Floridians had gotten the chance to see this version of Gingrich from the start.