THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- Newt Gingrich is painfully aware that Mitt Romney is pulling away from him in Florida on the strength of one issue: electability. Republican voters here are determined to nominate the candidate most likely to defeat Barack Obama, and many are acting as armchair political analysts, trying to weigh Newt's baggage versus Mitt's baggage, and trying to divine how the media might cover Newt versus Obama versus how it might cover Mitt versus Obama. Among voters most concerned about electability, Romney leads Gingrich by a significant margin.
That is why Gingrich, on a visit to this sprawling, 85,000-resident retirement community in central Florida, hit Romney hard over the issue of who can win in November.
"It comes down to a question of who do we think can win, and how can you win?" Gingrich said to a crowd that numbered somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 in a parking lot ringed by the golf carts many had used to come see him. "In 1980, we were involved in a campaign like this, and it was clear that you needed a conservative who was a long way from Jimmy Carter in order to win, because you had to show the difference. And I would argue we tried a moderate [Bob Dole] in 1996, and they couldn't show the difference. We tried a moderate [John McCain] in 2008. They couldn't show the difference."
Now, Gingrich said, Republicans should choose the candidate who can best delineate differences, not similarities, with Barack Obama. "We need to have somebody who can draw a sharp distinction," Gingrich said. Extending his hands about an inch apart, Gingrich said, "Romneycare and Obamacare are about this far apart. You can't make the difference." Extending his arms to each side, he continued, "But where we are as conservatives is about this far apart. Obama won't be able to hide from the difference."
As a specific example, Gingrich said the legacy of Romney's universal health plan in Massachusetts will make him ineffective in the fight to repeal Obamacare. "I can ask [Congress] to repeal Obamacare," Gingrich said, "because I haven't passed something which resembles it."
As he portrays himself as the genuine conservative in the race, Gingrich appears to be still smarting from Romney's attempt to minimize Gingrich's connection to the Reagan Revolution. Romney, who renounced Reagan during a run for Massachusetts Senate in 1994, has suggested that Gingrich played little role in the Reagan years and made little or no impression on the 40th president. In The Villages, Gingrich first noted support from Herman Cain and Sarah Palin, and added: "I am delighted that tomorrow Michael Reagan will be campaigning with me, which should tell you how false the ads were earlier this week by Romney which suggested I wasn't a Reagan Republican. Nancy Reagan said in 1995, 'Just as Barry [Goldwater] passed the torch to Ronnie, Ronnie has passed the torch to Newt.' And Michael will be here tomorrow, to prove to every doubting person, I am in fact the legitimate heir of the Reagan movement -- not some liberal from Massachusetts!"
That would be Mitt Romney.
Gingrich's new theme on Sunday reflected the latest stop in a long search for a line of attack that will work -- even as Romney pulls to a double-digit lead in a number of new polls. In a Fox News feature, pollster Frank Luntz reported that Gingrich's "Massachusetts Moderate" attack ad scored well with audiences and might conceivably eat into Romney's support. But the ad is playing infrequently in Florida -- Gingrich doesn't have a lot of money, and his super PAC doesn't seem to be interested in running it -- and the message has been lost amid Gingrich's rapidly-changing campaign themes.
Meanwhile, the voters here are weighing which man can win. "We're split down the middle," says Villages resident Allen Orchowski of himself and his wife Suzie. "My wife is concerned about electability. I'm more concerned about passion, and Newt's a fighter. I'll vote for either -- I'll vote for Elmer Fudd if I have to -- but on Tuesday, I'm voting for Newt, and my wife's voting for Mitt."
"It's electability," says Suzie Orchowski. "I just have some concerns about the past, some baggage -- I'm afraid of what will happen if Gingrich and Obama go head to head."