By Garrett Haake, NBC News
ORMOND BEACH, Fla. -- In his first campaign appearance in this pivotal primary state since his drubbing at the hands of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, Mitt Romney unveiled a new strategy Sunday night to stop the former speaker's momentum: Hit Gingrich. Hard.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 700 supporters at a rally here, Romney deviated from his standard remarks early, looking to define the candidate who mauled him in South Carolina in a different light by bringing up the tumultuous end of Gingrich's tenure as speaker of the House of Representatives.
"So I've had the experience of leadership. Now Speaker Gingrich has also been a leader. He was a leader for four years as speaker of the House," Romney said, as boos rang out at the mention of Gingrich's name. "And at the end of four years it was proven he was a failed leader. And he had to resign in disgrace. I don't know if you knew that. He actually 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."
Direct assaults like this from Romney on the stump are rare enough to be startling to those who hear him speak daily, but Romney didn't stop there, also tying Gingrich to the housing crisis in a state where the collapse in home values has been acutely felt.
"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? 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."
In the hours since Romney's double-digit loss in South Carolina, senior advisers to the campaign have said that the effort to contrast Gingrich and Romney more pointedly will continue in earnest all across Florida in the coming days, including on the debate stage Monday night.
On Monday, Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and the Speaker Designate of the Florida House, Will Weatherford, will hold a conference call with reporters cheekily titled "Definitely Not a Lobbyist," in which they will discuss Gingrich's work for Fannie and Freddie. Also Monday morning, Romney will hold just one public campaign appearance, a roundtable to discuss housing issues. It's a safe bet that Fannie and Freddie and Gingrich's work there will come up.