On the eve of the Florida primary, Mitt Romney wasted no time -- launching his first attack on rival Newt Gingrich within seconds of taking the stage at a forklift company here.
Continuing his campaign's relentless assault, Romney renewed now familiar charges that voters are turning away from Gingrich because of his troubles as House speaker in the 1990s and his more recent role as an advisor to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which Romney has blamed in part for the nation's housing crisis.
"People actually saw him in those debates and listened to his background and learned, for instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac, and they said that's not what we want in the White House," Romney said during his appearance Monday.
"Send him to the moon," a man in the crowd shouted, alluding to Gingrich's support for a lunar colony.
"What was that? Send him to the moon, he says," Romney responded, "All right. The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not what would have come to my mind as a campaign basis for here in Florida."
Earlier, on NBC's "Today" show, Romney needled Gingrich for failing for draw more endorsements from his former House colleagues, noting that he worked with "hundreds of people" but is being backed by only a few (see video below).
Asked about his drubbing in the South Carolina primary -- where he lost to Gingrich by double digits -- Romney argued that he was getting "wailed on" by Gingrich and his allies and acknowledged that his campaign "didn't respond well" -- prompting a more aggressive turn in Florida.
Over the last week in Florida, Romney's surrogates have "bracketed" Gingrich's events. going in to counter the former lawmaker's message. Gingrich ally Rick Tyler, a strategist for Winning Our Future, the independent political action committee supporting the former House speaker, turned the tables on the Romney campaign Monday by showing up at the Jacksonville event.
He blasted the onetime Massachusetts governor, accusing him of lying about Gingrich's record. He noted, for example, that Gingrich worked as a consultant for Freddie Mac but never lobbied on the organization's behalf.
Tyler also noted that Winning Our Future had circulated 2008 video of Gingrich arguing that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mac should be "busted up." He said Gingrich is simply being outspent by Romney, who he said is trying to confuse voters about the issue.
"If we had as much money to put on the air to tell the truth -- we could get there," he said when asked whether Gingrich had responded effectively to the attacks. "You heard him today telling falsehoods."
"He has a long history of buying and selling things," Tyler said. "But I'm shocked that he thinks he can buy and sell voters."