ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Trying to take advantage of the unpopularity surrounding Charlie Crist, Newt Gingrich is playing up the fact that Mitt Romney has hired members of the former governor’s campaign staff to assist in his primary bid.
“We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist‘s campaign team,” said Gingrich to loud boos from the crowd packed into the Tick Tock Restaurant here. “I thought that sort of told you everything you needed to know about this primary.”
“As governor of Massachusetts, he was pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, pro-tax increase and pro-gun control,” Gingrich later continued. “Now that makes him a moderate in Massachusetts but it makes him pretty liberal in a Republican primary, which probably explains why he hired Charlie Crist’s staff.”
Several of Crist’s former political aides now head up Romney’s team, including senior advisor Stuart Stevens. Crist, an independent who was formerly a Republican, was governor from 2007 until 2011, when Republican Rick Scott took office.
Voters should expect to see this theme echoed by Gingrich and his team throughout the week as they try to create a sharp contrast between the former speaker and Romney.
“It’s a very similar parallel to the Rubio-Crist debate here in Florida,” said Hammond in the spin room after the NBC/National Journal debate Monday night. “On one side you had a true conservative, on the other you had someone masquerading as somebody they were not, and so the people of Florida are very familiar with this story. They’ve already seen it one time, so for a lot of voters this is a repeat movie. They’ll just wait till the end and vote for Newt.”
Former Gingrich aide Rick Tyler, who runs the Winning Our Future super PAC, said in a recent interview with ABC News that his group would “remind Floridians that Mitt Romney is a Charlie Crist candidate,” whereas Gingrich is a “Marco Rubio candidate.”
But Gingrich failed to note Romney also has ties to Rubio. Several of Rubio’s top Senate staffers, including his chief of staff Cesar Conda and deputy Terry Sullivan worked on Romney’s presidential campaign in 2008.
“This is absurd. Mitt Romney endorsed Marco Rubio before Newt Gingrich did, and campaigned aggressively to make sure Marco Rubio defeated Charlie Crist. Besides, no one cares about past elections, they care about this one and defeating Barack Obama and restoring America. Floridians know Mitt Romney is the only conservative who can beat Barack Obama,” said Albert Martinez, a Romney adviser who served as a senior adviser to Rubio’s Senate campaign.
Immediately prior to his event, Gingrich’s Twitter account tweeted that his campaign had raised $2 million in 48 hours, and the former speaker said he was not deterred by the amount of a cash on hand the Romney team holds.
“The fact is Governor Romney will have vastly more money than I will but we’ll have many more people than he will. This is exactly what happened in South Carolina and people power beats money power every time,” said Gingrich.
But Gingrich also raised the stakes Tuesday morning, boldly saying he’d become the Republican nominee if he wins the Florida primary next week.
“If you’ll help me win next Tuesday, I will become the Republican nominee,” said Gingrich.
In early December, Gingrich showed the same confidence when he told ABC News’ Jake Tapper: “I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Gingrich later fell from atop the polls, placing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, but Gingrich regained his ground last weekend as he trounced his Republican opponents in the South Carolina primary, finishing with 40 percent of the vote, 12 points ahead of Mitt Romney.
ABC News’ Michael Falcone contributed to this report.