Newt Gingrich, with Herman Cain and Michael Reagan along to testify to his conservative credentials, tried to turn Mitt Romney's relentless negative television advertising against him a day before Floridians vote in a Republican presidential primary that could reshuffle the race.
Gingrich, labeling Romney "a Massachusetts liberal," characterized the election as pitting "people power against money power" and dismissed the former governor as having no vision other than to spend millions of dollars on negative advertising to destroy his adversary.
"I thought to myself, what a pathetic situation to be running for the president of the United States with nothing positive to say for yourself and nothing available, a big idea, a big vision, a big future, and all you've got is to tear your opponents down so they get to be smaller than you are," he told more than 400 people corralled in a sunny airport parking lot.
Gingrich mocked that approach as "the Romney model" and said, "My model's to talk about big solutions. How do we create jobs? How do we solve the housing problem? How do we create energy? What do we do to defend America? How do we get back to the Constitution? I want to run a big campaign against Barack Obama, not a small campaign."
Contrasting himself with Romney's past as a moderate Republican and his career as a businessman, Gingrich said, "I have an enormous advantage. I can draw on the entire rich intellectual history of the conservative movement, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, because I'm a genuine conservative, and I actually study these things. Now, I want to be upfront. I'm not a manager. I am a leader."
Gingrich, with a stiff wind ruffling his white hair and snapping the flags behind him, blasted advertising by Romney's campaign and a political action committee supporting him as false. "I don't think you should run for president unless you're prepared to tell the truth," he said.
When he had finished belittling Romney, he listed his objectives, including executive orders he said he planned to sign immediately after his inauguration "so that by the time the president lands in Chicago, we will have repealed about 40% of his government."
He began his speech by saying polls suggested he might be surging. He concluded by asking supporters to get out his vote. "Go home and get on Facebook this afternoon. Go home and email your friends this afternoon. Twitter on the way home," he said. "As I said earlier, I'm an old-fashioned conservative. It is OK for you to actually talk face-to-face with people."
Herman Cain, amusing the crowd with his wit, said he had nine reasons he endorsed Gingrich, but only had time to mention three, one of which was: "We need bold, fearless leadership in Washington, D.C., and he ain't scared." He urged undecided voters, "Look past all of the gutter politics and negativity. Look past all of the sideshows and all of this stuff that has nothing to do with the future of this country and look where Newt Gingrich stands on solid stuff."
Michael Reagan, the former president's adopted son, attested to Gingrich's central role in the Republican Party and asserted he was a conservative in his father's mold. "I don't know what's happening here," he said. "All of a sudden, they say, 'Well, Newt Gingrich is not a Reagan conservative. 'I wonder if those people think Ronald Reagan was a Reagan conservative."
One of Gingrich's organizers in the area is Randy Krise, a 59-year-old in commercial real estate who met Gingrich when he was a college history professor and making his first run for Congress. Krise, who is from Marietta, Ga., said he has volunteered in every one of his campaigns since and was even mentioned as a possible replacement when Gingrich resigned.
"He was a great guy and he spoke great," he said, recalling how Gingrich came and talked to a college history class he was taking. "He's just inspiring, and he's right."
Krise, wearing an American flag tie and white shirt with his company's name, said the former House speaker had all the skills you expect in a politician, including an uncanny recall for names. The second time he saw Krise's wife, Arvey, he greeted her by her unusual name. "Even I didn't get it right the second time," he said. "I think that was really amazing."
He said that he did not believe the polls showing Romney far ahead, pointing out that the campaign is using a computer program that tracks voters who have been contacted. "We believe from this kind of data that it's going to be closer than what they say," he said.
But he also said he would support whoever wins the Republican race to defeat President Obama. "Look, if Romney is the nominee, I'm supporting him as wholeheartedly as I support Newt," he said. He was interrupted by Gingrich's Lee County campaign chairwoman, Dori Cortese, who pointedly insisted, "There's no question Newt's going to make it."
Charlie Meyer, an ardent Gingrich supporter who had already voted for him, said he did have an issue to raise with the prolific author. He had bought two of his books, thinking they were history, only to discover they were "what-if books" spinning out alternative histories.
"I'm just going to ask him for my money back," he joked.
Meyer, a 67-year-old retired air traffic controller, considers his politics a little "out of the box," calling himself a strong grass-roots tea party supporter. By way of explaining his iconoclasm, he said he took his guitar to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and hung out there before he headed to Vietnam for two tours. "I was the only guy with no hair," he said.
He thinks Gingrich is the best match for his politics. "He's sort of a compilation of all the candidates, but a little bit more radical, which is what I am," he said. Romney reminds him of a Republican version of John Kerry, he said, "just the way he talks down to you."
Susan Shaner, who's from Wapakoneta, Ohio -- the home of astronaut Neil Armstrong, she points out -- drove up to the rally from Naples to continue her research on the Republican candidates. Ohio votes with nine other states on March 6, the Super Tuesday primary.
The 50-year-old who owns an agricultural testing laboratory had checked out Romney the day before. She was more impressed with Romney than she had expected, saying she finds him dry and reserved on television. "In person, he was much more interesting to listen to," she said.
But she said she still leans toward Gingrich. With Romney, she said, "Sometimes I feel like he's trying to say what he thinks the crowd wants to hear." With Gingrich, she said, "I think he speaks his mind and I just like what he says. I think he's not always trying to be politically correct. He's pretty straightforward."