Bracing for a Loss in Florida, Gingrich Reinvents Himself as a Grassroots Insurgent

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Ricardo Cases for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich arrives at Centro de la Familia Cristiana in Orlando on Jan. 28, 2012


When you throw a party only to show up an hour and 45 minutes late, the least you can do is feed your guests. Once he arrived at a cavernous hangar for a rally on the last full day of campaigning before Tuesday’s pivotal Florida primary, Newt Gingrich served up a multicourse red-meat buffet. First up was Michael Reagan, the ex-President’s son, who told the small but exuberant crowd to think of liberals as “termites.” Then came Herman Cain, who declared that “stupid people are ruining this country,” and even managed to slip a few kind words about Gingrich into his self-aggrandizing shtick. Finally, Gingrich took the podium and uncorked a torrent of Tea Party rhetoric that may signal a tactical shift as he surveys the electoral landscape beyond the Sunshine State.

Gingrich assailed President Obama’s alleged “war on Christianity” and chided him for “bowing” to a Saudi king. He vowed to stand tall against Shari’a law, another familiar conservative bugbear. He promised to issue an Executive Order eliminating Obama’s “czars” within hours of Inauguration. Ditto for opening a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, a move the past three Presidents have eschewed to avoid stoking regional turmoil. He wants to audit the Federal Reserve. “We’re going to send a message to George Soros, to Goldman Sachs,” he said. “I am real change.”

(MORE: Outstumped and Outspent, Newt Gingrich Flounders in Florida)

Gingrich is unlikely to get the chance to implement this vision. But he is shaking things up within his schizophrenic campaign. After skipping from message to message in recent days, he has apparently decided his best shot at knocking off Mitt Romney is to embrace Tea Party populism. And so he has reinvented himself as a grassroots gadfly, ready to dog the GOP “all the way to the convention.”

The core of this strategy is a renewed effort to highlight the differences between himself and Romney and argue that Romney is too similar to Obama to win the White House. Gingrich has been making this point for a while, but rarely in terms as stark as he has deployed in the past 48 hours. After weeks of tagging his rival as a “Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich on Sunday debuted a new line that recast Romney as a “pro-abortion, pro–gun control, pro–tax increase” Massachusetts “liberal.”

(PHOTOS: Newt Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)

“There’s really no difference between Romney and Obama,” he said in Tampa, quoting Soros. As Gingrich began tracing the similarities between the Massachusetts health care system and Obama’s federal bill, he caught sight of a supporter in the first row hoisting a handmade sign. “ObamaCare is RomneyCare,” it read, above a drawing depicting Romney with ghoulish makeup and a slash of red lipstick, à la the Joker. Gingrich paused to admire the sign.

“I did it! I’m an angry voter!” the man yelled. Smiling, Gingrich motioned for him to pass the sign up to the stage, where he and his wife Callista autographed it. “Do not put this on eBay,” he said.

This new role as a Tea Party crusader is something of a stretch for Gingrich, a Washington institution who supported TARP and has praised elements of the individual health-insurance mandate that is at the heart of both Romney’s and Obama’s health care overhauls. In 1994 he orchestrated the first Republican takeover of the House in four decades by trumpeting the merits of the free market. Now Goldman plays the boogeyman in his closing argument. Only last week, Gingrich was emphasizing his Washington savvy to argue that he was uniquely equipped to drain the swamps of the nation’s capital. Now he is the avenging outsider.

“That’s why the Establishment of the party is terrified,” he said. “Because we will change things.” Using the Establishment as a foil is a risky move for a man who netted more than $3 million in 2010 from the political gravy train. But Gingrich seems to see it as his best shot at the nomination. If he’s dealt a sizable setback in Florida, Gingrich will have to claw back into the race against the headwinds of February, a month with just one debate and only a few smaller, scattered state contests (mostly caucuses, in which his haphazard organization will be a liability). Some of those states — including Nevada, home of Sharron Angle; and Arizona, governed by Jan Brewer — have a Republican electorate with a finely tuned ear for the Tea Party language that Gingrich has adopted as his own.

(MORE: With Gingrich on the Trail in Florida, Romney Surrogates Are Never Far Behind)

In Tampa, the members of the relatively small but passionate crowd ate the act up. Behind Gingrich onstage were a cadre of handpicked voters: most elderly, all donning an abundance of Newt flair. One woman in the front row wore no fewer than six pro-Gingrich pins, along with a campaign sticker plastered on the center of her forehead. Another had an “Annoy a Liberal” pin — an homage to Sarah Palin’s recent directive — on a hat topped by a stuffed elephant holding an American flag in its trunk. “Newt Gingrich voters are enthusiastic voters,” says Jose Mallea, Gingrich’s Florida director, who believes this “enthusiasm gap” could be good for 5 to 7 points in the polls. That almost certainly wouldn’t be good enough, though. A Suffolk University survey released on Monday showed Romney up by 20 points.

Gingrich has proven himself a master at reinventing himself for voters like these, who profess fears about a nation slipping away from them in some undefinable way. “I love my country, and I want it to go back to what I loved about it,” says Barbara McLeod, 68. Her friend Joyce Sweeney, 60, held a sign that read, “Newter the Bamster: Bring on the Debates.” A foreign journalist asked her to explain what the term Bamster meant. “That’s what Rush Limbaugh calls Obama,” she explained. “It’s like a gangster.”

Sally Cummings, a retiree from Brooksville, was strolling around the hangar after the rally with a sign of her own. “Tea Party vs. Cocktail Party!” it read, above Gingrich’s name. “He’s more of a grassroots, common person,” she says. “And Romney is very much the cocktail party. He is the elite.”

If a man with a 5,000 sq. ft. mansion in McLean, Va., can sell this juxtaposition, how can you ignore the possibility that he will rise from the ashes yet again?