His campaign gaining momentum in Florida, Newt Gingrich has found new support in the Tea Party ranks.
The former House speaker has forged a strong connection with a movement that often finds itself on the fringes of the Republican Party but could be a game changer in next week's crucial primary.
Along with his blistering criticism of Washington and front-runner Mitt Romney's wealth, Gingrich will likely continue to reach out to Tea Partiers at tonight's debate, sponsored by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network,
For Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, it's Gingrich's outreach to the "common man" that makes him so appealing to undecided voters like him.
It's a "no brainer for us," Wilkinson said. "He's got baggage but he is someone we can work with. Romney wants to work with bankers.
"He [Romney] will go to a GOP club meeting, but he won't go to a Tea Party meeting. He went around and got a lot of key endorsements from officials but I think he avoided the common man whereas Gingrich is out beating the pavement and his staff has been reaching out to grassroots groups, very similar to [Sen.] Marco Rubio," he continued. People "shake his hand and he's the guy who tells them he's going to work on getting a balanced budget and get a surplus in D.C."
The Tea Party movement in Florida played an important role in the 2010 election, helping elect GOP newcomers such Rubio and Rep. Allen West to Congress. It also played a significant part in sinking the candidacy for former Gov. Charlie Crist, who switched from Republican to independent to run against Rubio.
The Tea Party movement in this economically hard-hit state is particularly strong. It was, in many ways, born out of the mortgage crisis that inflicted Florida more than most other states. Although unemployment has dropped to 9.9 percent, it remains above the national average, and the housing market has yet to recover fully.
The movement's biggest weakness is that it's loosely organized and there's no one leader. But, like two years ago, it remains a force to be reckoned with, experts say, and a victory for Gingrich in Florida would only enforce that, as in South Carolina.
"Most of the Tea Party folks I've seen just want to get rid of Obama," Republican strategist and Florida resident Chris Ingram said. "They are angry with Washington and politicians in general whether, they be Democrat or Republican, and they don't like being told who to vote or what to do."
Gingrich hopes to bank on such anger in the Sunshine state. Speaking at the Lake County Tea Party rally this morning, the former House speaker railed against everyone - from President Obama to Romney to the Republican party - in a crowd of hundreds of Tea Partiers.
"The Republican establishment is just as much as an establishment as the Democratic establishment, and they are just as determined to stop us," Gingrich said to loud applause. "We were drowning in a sea mud in Iowa. Mud paid for with special-interest money, mud paid for by lobbyists in Washington and a candidate who was willing to do anything and say anything because he's so desperate to be president he doesn't think the truth matters."
It's that kind of message that helped Gingrich win by double-digit percentage points over the former Massachusetts governor in South Carolina, where Romney had been the consistent front-runner until a few days leading to the primary.
Gingrich, 68, was propelled to victory by evangelicals and Tea Party supporters and best seen as the candidate who could beat Obama in November.
The former congressman from Georgia continues to build on that momentum in Florida, where Tea Party votes could fill the void left by a lack of Hispanic support, which is leaning mostly toward Romney for now.
His rhetoric and verbal skills are enough for people to overlook his own insider background. His railing against Washington and Romney's wealth, berating Romney's decision to hire former Crist staffers and continuous examples of how he balanced the budget as speaker - though not always factual - are picking up steam with the Tea Party crowd that's focused heavily on fiscal issues rather than social topics.
"Newt's been very effective at kind of being a chameleon and turning from being the ultimate insider's insider into rallying as an outsider very effectively," Ingram said.
Unlike Romney, thousands of Floridians have flocked to Gingrich's events, hoping to shake hands with the presidential candidate and voice their concerns. That kind of enthusiasm, experts say, could well overcome Romney's considerable financial advantage.
"Newt is everywhere here," Ingram, a Tampa resident, said. "Where is Romney? He's on television with the paid stuff. But the enthusiasm that's being shown by the folks at the Gingrich rally, that translates into real votes. Anybody who shows up at a rally, they are darn well going to vote for them on Election Day."