Port St. Lucie, Florida — As Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of a few hundred people on the golf course at the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, three US Representatives who have all endorsed Mitt Romney — Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Connie Mack of Florida, and Mary Bono Mack of California (the latter two are husband and wife) — spoke to reporters behind the crowd, making the case for Mitt over Newt. (They wouldn’t deviate from this; when I asked Congressman Mack about what he’d say to a voter who preferred Rick Santorum, he almost immediately pivoted back to criticizing Gingrich.) As reporters and cameras surrounded Bass, Gingrich press secretary RC Hammond stood to the side talking to one or two reporters at a time, looking annoyed. After a few minutes, Hammond joined the scrum and confronted Bass.
Hammond: “Do you regret having Newt campaign for you in ’94?”
Bass: “He didn’t.”
Hammond: “He didn’t come up for you?”
Bass: “Not at all.”
Hammond: “What about Zeliff and the moose trip? You were on that one.”
Bass: “That was, that was — absolutely, and that was to help Newt, not to help me.”
Bass was right about this. The “moose trip” refers to Gingrich’s visit to New Hampshire in 1995, ostensibly to see a moose with Rep. William Zeliff; it was widely seen as Newt testing the waters for a possible presidential run, and had nothing to do with campaigning for Bass. Having been bested — actually, before Bass had quite gotten the word “me” out — Hammond turned to Mack:
“Congressman, do you regret asking Newt for his endorsement earlier this year?” Mack deflected and pressed — i.e. issued the Romney campaign talking points — on Gingrich’s influence-peddling for Freddie Mac, with Hammond countering with his own talking points, and neither man stopping to listen to the other:
Hammond: “Peddling would be what [Romney adviser] Vin Weber did–“
Mack: “No peddling is what Newt did when he–“
Hammond: “Oh, that’s your definition. Vin registered as a lobbyist for Freddie, right?”
Mack and Hammond continued to talk over each other until Mack’s better half interjected, saying she’d answer Hammond’s question. Said Bono Mack: “I was honored to have Newt’s endorsement, of course. I think he’s a terrific thinker, and I think he should lead a think tank. I don’t think he’s fit to be president of the United States.” The scrum broke up shortly thereafter.
At the media availability just after, Gingrich was asked about the Romney surrogates shadowing his campaign event; he said it was a sign of “desperation.” Said Gingrich: “They send a member of Congress, we send R.C.,” and added that Hammond is “more informed than they are.” Hammond’s exchange with Bass would suggest otherwise.
In fact, while the strategy of having surrogates follow Gingrich certainly demonstrates that Newt is the one rival that Team Romney most worries about, it’s the Gingrich campaign that is beginning to radiate desperation, and it’s easy to see why: His argument that he’d be a strong general election candidate, which is central to the current iteration of his stump speech, is no longer resonating the way it did in South Carolina. Warming up the crowd while Newt’s bus ran late, the campaign’s St. Lucie County co-chair Jolien Caraballo asked, “Can you imagine a debate with Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama?” The crowd cheered, but the line has a lot less punch after Newt’s lackluster performance in the debates on Monday and Thursday; small wonder that he’s averaging more than 8 points behind in the Florida polls after leading by almost as much at the beginning of the week.
Perhaps confrontating Romney’s surrogates is Hammond’s way of trying to challenge the narrative, but it isn’t working. While this confrontation wasn’t quite as counterproductive as Hammond’s sneering at Rep. Jason Chaffetz yesterday, it’s hard to see how it helps.