ORMOND BEACH, Fla. - Mitt Romney wasted no time going after Newt Gingrich this evening, slugging the former House speaker with insults, telling the crowd that he is a "failed leader" who "resigned in disgrace."
"Now Speaker Gingrich is also a leader," said Romney, speaking to a rally of hundreds in the parking lot of a building supply warehouse. "He was a leader for four years, as speaker of the House. At the end of four years it was proven that he was a failed leader and he had to resign in disgrace.
"I don't know if you actually knew that," Romney said. "He resigned after four years in disgrace. He was investigated under an ethics panel and had to make a payment associated with that and then his fellow Republicans, 88 percent of Republicans voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership."
The rally this evening was the first public event Romney has held since coming in second to Gingrich in South Carolina, and it was apparent he was energized and ready to take on the next leg of the primary race - the 10-day slog to next week's primary in Florida. He spent more 30 minutes after his speech working his way down the long line of supporters, shaking hands and signing autographs for the crowd, many of whom said they had gathered as early as 2 p.m. for the event, which was called for 6 p.m.
"Florida needs you," one supporter told Romney as they shook hands, to which the candidate responded: "Well, I need you guys."
In addition to hitting Gingrich on his ethics fine, Romney repeated his call for the former speaker to release the records from when he acted as a consultant for the mortgage company Freddie Mac.
"Over the last, what, 15 years, since he left the House, he talks about great bold movements and ideas. Well, what's he been doing for 15 years? He has been working as a lobbyist. He was working as a lobbyist and selling influence around Washington," Romney said. "He was working for Freddie Mac - heard of those guys? He says that he's just been a historian, I would like him to release his records, what was his work product?
"What was he doing at Freddie Mac?" Romney went on. "Because Freddie Mac figures prominently into the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down. It's time to turn that around."
And then there were attacks by Romney that alluded to Gingrich's outspoken personality and the recent attacks on the former speaker's integrity.
"We're not choosing a talk show host, all right?" Romney said. "We're choosing a leader. We're choosing the person who should be the leader of the free world. I believe leaders have integrity. I believe they are people of sobriety, judgment, thoughtfulness, reliability, high ethical standards, all the elements of leadership I think you're going to have to look at as Floridians to decide which of the people who are running for president in our side of the aisle includes the qualities of leadership."
Romney's energy seemed only to surge when he was interrupted by a group of protesters, who instead of telling them his usual line about how he's glad we live in a world where free speech is accepted, yelled at them to "take a hike!"
And in a rare move, Romney's wife Ann strayed from her usual introduction of her husband, mentioning not only the five sons she raised but also her husband's tax returns, a topic that has been one of great contention over the past week. After a week of saying he would not release the reports until April, Romney said this morning that he will release his 2010 tax returns and an estimate of his 2011 report on Tuesday.
"I understand Mitt's going to release his tax forms this week," Ann Romney said. "I want to remind you of where we know our riches are. Our riches are with our families."