- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney said Tuesday that his loss in South Carolina taught him that he couldn’t let the attacks from rivals against him go unanswered in Florida, where he has widened his lead in the polls on the back of an around-the-clock negative campaign against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ahead of Tuesday’s pivotal primary vote.

Speaking to reporters outside his well-appointed campaign office here, Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said Mr. Gingrich has gotten a taste of his own medicine over the past 10 days in the Sunshine State.

“He really can’t whine against negative campaigning when he launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina,” Mr. Romney said, pointing out that a recent poll showed that Floridians believe Mr. Gingrich has run a more negative campaign. “I needed to make sure that instead of being outgunned in terms of attacks, that I responded aggressively, and I think I have, and hopefully that will serve me well here.”

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, argued during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” that Republicans should have learned through the 1996 and 2008 presidential campaigns, where Bob Dole and John McCain represented the party atop the ticket, that they need “a solid conservative” to recapture the White House — not someone he repeatedly has described as a “Massachusetts moderate.”

Describing Mr. Romney‘s  gubernatorial record as “pro-abortion, pro-gun control and pro-tax increase,” Mr. Gingrich said the universal health-care plan that Mr. Romney signed as governor would hurt his chances in a general election match-up against President Obama, who used the Bay State program as a model for his federal health-care overhaul.

“Obamacare was based on Romneycare, so if we want to beat Barack Obama, you need a solid conservative,” the Georgian said, before highlighting the support he’s received from such figures as Herman Cain; Michael Reagan, former President Reagan’s son; and Todd Palin, husband of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “I’m clearly the front-runner amongst conservatives, and hopefully over the coming weeks we will be able to consolidate the conservative vote, in which case Gov. Romney will start losing badly.”

Following his victory in South Carolina, Mr. Gingrich received an initial bounce in polls here. But his stock has since fizzled, in large part under the weight of the negative radio and television ads the Romney camp has run, highlighting how Mr. Gingrich was forced out of his speakership in 1999 and the $1.6 million his consulting firm received from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that many conservatives say is at the core of the subprime mortgage mess.

The latest realclearpolitcs.com average of presidential polls gives Mr. Romney a 13-point lead over Mr. Gingrich, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum even further behind.

Buoyed by the new polls, Mr. Romney was all smiles Tuesday when he visited his state headquarters here in Tampa. After shaking some hands and posing for pictures, he took a seat alongside some volunteers manning a phone bank and called voters, urging them to get out to vote.

In the press conference with reporters, he said he didn’t understand how Mr. Gingrich “characterizes himself as more conservative than me” and emphasized the important role Florida plays in the nomination race.

“Florida has the biggest cache of delegates of any of the states so far, and of course it’s a big state. In some respects, Florida is a microcosm of the entire nation because people retire here from all over the country, [and] it has a large Hispanic community as well,” he said. “So doing well in Florida is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally.”