Mitt Romney Comes Out Swinging In The Sunshine State (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

The disciplined and measured campaign Mitt Romney once ran seems like a thing of the past as he begins a week-long effort to fend off a surging Newt Gingrich in Florida.

Romney is now being  forced to play both defense and offense, and he came out swinging in his first campaign event in the Sunshine State after limping out of South Carolina more than 12 percentage points behind Gingrich.

"Speaker Gingrich is also a leader," Romney said at a rally last night in Ormond Beach, Fla. "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."

But the former Massachusetts governor, who had a slim victory in the Iowa caucuses taken away from him last week and who enters the closing eight days of the Florida contest with a one-win-and-two-loss record in the first three nominating contests, has a wild card issue to deal with: his taxes.

Under pressure, Romney pushed up the date he would release his tax returns from April to tomorrow.  "We made a mistake for holding off as long as we did," Romney said in a Fox News interview on Sunday.

He's also trying to give as good as he's getting, sounding ever louder calls for the former House Speaker to release his records 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," Romney said on the stump yesterday. "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. 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."

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America" today, Gingrich said he is "very comfortable" with those records being released, but did not offer a firm commitment.

WATCH: George's full interview with Gingrich:


CAN MITT ROMNEY GET HIS GROVE BACK? ABC News Political Director Amy Walter takes a closer look at three keys that will determine whether Mitt can be the comeback kid, or if he'll be the guy who once again came oh-so-close to the nomination, just to lose again:

-Don't allow Newt Gingrich to become the populist crusader: Gingrich did a masterful job in the South Carolina debates and on the Sunday shows yesterday of casting himself as the anti-establishment, anti-Washington outsider. This is quite a remarkable feat, given Gingrich's 20 years in Congress and his time spent post-Congress making money off his connections to those very elites he now rails against.

-Stop using establishment politicians to attack Gingrich: Romney and his allies want to cast Gingrich as erratic and undisciplined, while trying to turn Romney's own boringness and lack of pizzazz into an asset. The message: Serious times deserve a serious candidate. But, the messengers are as important as the ultimate message. For an electorate already soured and skeptical about all things Washington, using members or former members of Congress as attack dogs is counterproductive and could even help Gingrich polish his outsider bona-fides.

-Let Newt be Newt: As we've seen in the past, Gingrich is his greatest asset and his own worst enemy. He was polished and poised during the last two debates, but can he stay focused and practice that message discipline for another week? Gingrich is also a much more polarizing figure than Romney. In that January ABC News-Washington Post poll, 23 percent of Republicans said they would definitely not support Gingrich for the nomination. Just 8 percent said that about Romney.

WHY ROMNEY IS WORRIED. ABC's Rick Klein writes that Newt Gingrich is succeeding by plucking emotional chords with the Republican base - notes that Romney has famously been unable to match, and the type of music that has a way of plowing over grass-roots organization and slick ad campaigns. Romney remains the frontrunner by any objective criteria. But those same traditional ways to measure campaigns strongly suggested that Gingrich would have been forced out of this race long ago. So the campaign moves on with Romney displaying more vulnerabilities than were evident just a few days ago. Gingrich, meanwhile, is connecting with voters in a way that Romney never quite has. A race that was close to being effectively over by now will linger for weeks or, more likely, months. That's particularly true if Rick Santorum pledges to stay in the race, as he said he would do on ABC's "This Week" yesterday.

WATCH: George Stephanopoulos' interview with GOP contender Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator called Gingrich a "high risk" candidate:

DEBATE DAY PREVIEW. NBC News, National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times host a prime-time presidential debate 9 p.m. ET tonight. It will take place at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The debate between the four remaining presidential candidates will be moderated by NBC's Brian Williams and will feature National Journal's Beth Reinhard and the Times' Adam C. Smith.


THE VOTING HAS BEGUN . ABC's Chris Good notes that the Republican Party of Florida's communications director, Brian Hughes, tweeted these numbers yesterday: "FloridaGOP stats: 475,782 absentees requested, 191,810 returned, 35,401 early votes = 227,211 votes cast so far." Remember that early and absentee voting are different, as Florida does allow in-person early voting during limited hours leading up to primary day.

BOTTOM LINE: Early voting is "critical," a Florida GOP strategist told The Note. "Tens of thousands of people will vote every day in Florida between now and the primary. So winning each earned media cycle is even more significant in Florida than the average primary dogfight because it has immediate ballot implications.

POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY: The strategist tells ABC New that "as a general rule, the primary electorate grows basically less conservative as you head south The I-4 corridor - Tampa and Orlando media markets- is absolutely essential. Over half the vote will come from these two markets - maybe more. The candidates will have to hit the corridor every day. Miami-Dade is a place where voters tend to vote more monolithic. There is no other place like Dade where it is possible to build up margins with big numbers … that basically defy statewide trends. It doesn't work like this every cycle. But it can."


BATTLE OF THE FLORIDA GROUND GAMES. Both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns have been touting their ability to compete in Florida - the largest of the early primary states. Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond say the campaign said in a statement this morning that 500 new volunteers had signed up in Florida since Saturday, "bringing the total in the Sunshine State to 5,000." Hammond said there are seven headquarters offices currently open around the state - Miami, Boca Raton, Orlando, Mount Dora, Tampa, Jacksonville, Brooksville  - and two pending - Lakeland, Altemonte Springs. He also noted that "In the Sunshine State, Newt 2012 has 14 paid staffers, seven offices, and a county chair in all 67 counties. State Director Jose Mallea was Marco Rubio's campaign manager and former Attorney General Bill McCollum is a co-chair."

But Team Romney can also boast an impressive organization as ABC's Emily Friedman reports: "The campaign has five paid full-time staffers in the state, a troop led by state director Molly Donlin, and there are three offices across the state, the campaign anchored out of the Tampa headquarters. They have county chairs in place in all 67 counties in Florida and have spread their staffers and volunteers across the state, with presence in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami and the Panhandle. Television ads - three of them, to be exact - are on the air, and have been since Jan. 3, and a fourth, in Spanish, is also running. Mailers are also being circulated. Staffers have been hosting near-daily phone banking sessions since September and have made contact with the list the list of residents registered to receive absentee ballots, a list made public by the Secretary of State."

WHAT THE CANDIDATES WILL FIND IN THE 'SUNSHINE' STATE. "Florida is an exemplar of a troubled national economy, ranking seventh in the U.S. in the rate of foreclosure filings per household and with unemployment at 9.9 percent. Romney's focus on jobs and growth may be a better fit here, with fewer voters emphasizing issues such as abortion and gay marriage," writes Bloomberg's John McCormick. "'This is a state where fiscal conservatism is much stronger than social conservatism,' said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. With 18.8 million residents - 6 percent of the total U.S. population - Florida also reflects the nation more than the three states that preceded it on the nominating calendar. Its population grew 17.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, fueled by immigrants, transplants and retirees. 'It's a place that gives you a good indication of where the country is at,' said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami. 'It also tends to be a very moderate state in Republican politics. That could be a good thing for Romney.'"


THE $10 MILLION MEN? How much will Romney and Gingrich raise in advance of the Jan. 31 Florida primary? "Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, plans to raise as much as $10 million ahead of the Jan. 31 Florida primary and has recruited many of the national fund-raisers who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he dropped out last week," reports the Wall Street Journal's Brody Mullins and Alicia Mundy. "Money could be more important than ever now that it appears the Republican nomination could be contested for several additional months."

But, according to National Journal's Major Garrett: "The Gingrich appeal in South Carolina can translate in northern and rural Florida but may find voters less receptive in the central Interstate Four corridor and more cosmopolitan and Latino southern Florida. Money won't determine the outcome entirely, but it will play a substantial role. South Carolina proves money isn't determinative. Romney spent twice as much Gingrich and lost by double-digits. And Gingrich will reap huge financial gains from South Carolina. Top Republicans believe Gingrich could raise as much as $10 million in the next two weeks."

GABBY GIFFORDS STEPPING DOWN. Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will step down from the House this week to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head, but she vowed in a two-minute video announcement of her decision that she will be back, ABC's Amy Bingham reports."I have more work to do on my recovery and so to do what is best for Arizona I will step down this week," she said in the video, which was posted on her website and on YouTube. "I'm getting better every day. My spirit is high. I will return and we will work together for Arizona and this great country." Giffords has made a stunning recovery after being shot in the head by a gunman who opened fire while the Arizona congresswoman was meeting with constituents at a suburban Arizona supermarket in January 2011. She said in the video that she needs to focus on her rehabilitation. "Thank you for your prayers and for giving me time to recover," she said. Before leaving office, Giffords will complete the "Congress On Your Corner" event that was interrupted last January when 22-year-old gunman Jared Loughner opened fire, killing six and wounding twelve. Giffords, a Democrat, also plans to attend President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday.

SOTU PREVIEW: FROM THE SPEAKER'S DESK. A day before President Obama is set to deliver his State of the Union address, House Speaker John Boehner has released a mock movie trailer, which as the Speaker's office notes, "will be delivered on the 1,000th day since the Senate last passed a budget." It features the House Republicans' website,, where Americans will be able to watch the president's remarks and the GOP Address to the Nation live online. WATCH:

WHY RON PAUL IS SMART TO SKIP FLORIDA. "It makes sense given the cost of running a statewide campaign and the state's winner-take-all delegate system where the No. 2 or 3 finisher will walk away with zero delegates," notes Adam C. Smith, the Tampa Bay Times' political editor. "There's another logical reason: Paul never had much chance of doing well in Florida, which is the first contest in the primary season where only registered Republicans can vote. Paul does best in caucuses and 'open primaries' where his army of devoted, young followers can vote Republican whether or not they have any strong allegiance to the GOP. Florida, where Paul won just 3 percent of the vote four years ago, is the first real test of Paul among a true Republican electorate. It's not likely to draw many young voters, who are the core of Paul's base. In New Hampshire and Iowa this year, at least 12 percent of the electorate was younger than 30, while 2008 Florida exit polls found only 7 percent of the GOP primary vote came from people younger than 30."

NOTED: PAUL'S ROAD AHEAD.  After coming in last in South Carolina, Ron Paul is reminding people he's in it for the "long, hard slog," ABC's Jason Volack reports. Campaign literature out over the weekend reminds voters that very few delegates have been selected.  Paul will now concentrate on collecting delegates in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Nevada. Campaign officials say they will campaign in Maine on Friday and Saturday and then move to the other three states in the course of a week ending in Nevada. Paul already has television ads up in Minnesota and Nevada and is been circulating mailers in all four states.

RICK SANTORUM TARGETS GINGRICH AND ROMNEY. ABC News' Shushannah Walshe filed this dispatch from Coral Springs, Fla. yesterday:  In front of an enthusiastic crowd of 200 people that interrupted him several times with cheers of "Rick, Rick, Rick," he said: "We are going to campaign all up and down the state of Florida." He hit both Newt Gingrich, who won the first-in-the-South primary Saturday, and Mitt Romney, who placed second. "Trust is a big issue in this election," he said, standing in the sun on a perfect South Florida day. "Who do you trust who is going to do what they say they are going to do? "You look at the record of someone who was the governor of Massachusetts and, well, didn't necessarily govern all that conservatively," Santorum said, before introducing a new attack on Gingrich.

CHRIS CHRISTIE ON NEWT: HE'S AN 'EMBARRASSMENT' New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn't shy about playing Mitt Romney's attack dog, ABC's Jonathan Karl notes. Sunday morning on "Meet the Press," he said Newt Gingrich has been "an embarrassment to the party," citing his ethics violation and the fact that he was thrown out as speaker of the House by his own party. Gingrich, on the other hand, showed on Sunday that he is his own best attack dog, suggesting that Romney's arguments on Bain wouldn't stand up to "a high school debater." Gingrich suggested his own debate performance was a big contributor to his success in South Carolina. "One of the reasons I think people in South Carolina voted for me is the  belief that I could debate [President] Obama head to head and convey American values," he said. "We need somebody who can win the debates and try to undo the damage that [the Obama campaign] will try to do with their billion-dollar campaign."

'NEWT NIXON'? Time Magazine's Jon Meacham suggests the most accurate historical analog for Newt Gingrich is not Ronald Reagan but rather, Richard Nixon: "Gingrich has much more in common with the 37th president than he does with the 40th. Gingrich's language and even some of his mannerisms (remember the glower) directly descend from the Nixon of 1968," Meacham writes. "The analogous elements are obvious. Like Nixon, Gingrich is smart, with a wide-ranging and entrepreneurial mind. Like Nixon, Gingrich is a striver who seems insecure around traditional establishment figures even though he has achieved much more than nearly all of the politicians, editors, and reporters he seems to at once loathe and fear. Like Nixon, Gingrich is fluent in the vernacular of cultural populism, brilliantly casting contemporary American life in terms of an overarching conflict between 'real' people and distant 'elites' bent on the destruction of all that is good and noble about the United States. … The question now is how far the Nixonian strategy can take Gingrich, who will doubtless continue invoking the sunnier Reagan while using tactics learned from the darker Nixon."


@SalenaZitoTrib : I don't understand how people can say  @RickSantorum should leave the race. He won Iowa, Iowa. We r only 2% of the way there w/ delegates

@WhispersBedard : It matters that Newt Gingrich's Florida state director was Marco Rubio's campaign manager.

@kakukowski : @RNC Chairman Priebus op-ed on Obama has given up on doing his job

@ZekeJMiller : Ron Paul Newsletter: Oklahoma City Was An Inside Job

@BrentBozell : Bozell Statement: Newt's Victory in South Carolina a Defeat for the Liberal Media  #tcot  #newt  #mediabias

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