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In Florida, ugly Republican fight gets even uglier

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MOUNT DORA, Fla. - Newt Gingrich's appearance here, on a beautiful morning at a beautiful lakeside resort, marked a new escalation in the already-fierce battle between the former House speaker and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

For the first time, Gingrich added a long prologue to his stump speech, devoted entirely to an angry denunciation of Romney's attacks. Also for the first time, top representatives of the Romney campaign began to shadow Gingrich, appearing in person at the lakeside rally in a move that could signal an even more confrontational stance for the combative Romney team. Amid all that, the flurry of negative advertising in this state is becoming even more intense.

Mount Dora was Gingrich's first stop of the morning, in a long day that would end with the final GOP debate of the Florida primary, at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Waiting for Gingrich to appear, many voters said they were still undecided; most spoke well of both Gingrich and Romney and didn't want to see the candidates fighting each other. Some were put off by the seemingly endless series of phone calls and mailings from the Romney camp attacking Gingrich.

Gingrich himself certainly was. Instead of beginning a stump speech when he took the stage, Gingrich decided instead rail at the ads. "This is the desperate last stand of the old order, throwing the kitchen sink, hoping something sticks, because if only they can drown us in enough mud. ..." a clearly angry Gingrich began, mixing a raft of metaphors in a meandering denunciation of Romney. In the next few minutes, Gingrich accused Romney of taking big money from Wall Street, of accepting the support of lobbyists, of having a Swiss bank account, of owning stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- all in an effort to suggest that Romney's attacks on Gingrich over lobbying are hypocritical.

"What level of gall does it take?" Gingrich asked. Further, Gingrich added, Romney had the audacity recently to question Gingrich's credentials as a Reaganite when Romney himself renounced Reagan during his 1994 run for the Senate in Massachusetts. "He said, 'I don't want to go back to the Reagan-Bush years," Gingrich said. "He's counting on us not having YouTube. That's how much he thinks we're stupid. ... The message we should give Mitt Romney is, 'We aren't that stupid and you aren't that clever.'"

Listening in the audience was Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a prominent Romney supporter who has been campaigning nearly nonstop on Romney's behalf. What was Chaffetz doing at a Gingrich rally? "Newt Gingrich introduced this idea that if he were to be the nominee, he would follow Barack Obama wherever he went, and I thought that was a pretty good idea," Chaffetz said with a smile. Other Romney aides and surrogates were also there; their presence allowed them to rebut Gingrich's points on-the-spot with the press, as well as get a firsthand impression of Gingrich's performance on the stump.

Afterward, Gingrich was asked why he hasn't sent surrogates to Romney events. "He doesn't say anything worth rebutting," Gingrich said dismissively. "I mean, I would send somebody if I thought it was a useful exercise."

Meanwhile, Gingrich has found himself the target of a renewed round of attacks from fellow conservatives. In the 24 hours before his appearance at Mount Dora, a variety of conservative voices, from National Review to Tom DeLay to Ann Coulter to former Reagan and Bush White House official Elliott Abrams, all published hard-hitting critiques of Gingrich.

Asked to respond, Gingrich said he has tried to run a campaign based on ideas. "I get a pretty good reaction from the American people on these large ideas," he continued. "And then there is the Washington establishment, which is sitting around in a frenzy, having coffee, lunch, and cocktail hours talking about how do we stop Gingrich?"

Earlier, in his remarks to the crowd, Gingrich had those critics in mind when he told the crowd, "Remember, the Republican establishment is just as much an establishment as the Democratic establishment, and they are just as determined to stop us."

It's perfectly reasonable for Gingrich's critics to point out that a former speaker of the House is as establishment as one can get. But Gingrich is right about the determination to stop him. Florida is the biggest prize yet in the Republican presidential race, and an extraordinary array of GOP voices has come together in an effort to derail the former House speaker. Whether they succeed will determine the outcome of this campaign.

Byron York, The Examiner’s chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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