Brian Snyder / Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally in Naples, Fla., on Sunday.
By NBC's Garrett Haake
NAPLES, Fla. -- The days of subtle contrast with Republican candidates and a focus exclusively on President Obama appear to be over for Mitt Romney, who Sunday morning wasted no time throwing verbal haymakers at Newt Gingrich, looking for a knockout.
At his best-attended rally yet this campaign cycle, Romney opened his address with a flurry of attacks against Gingrich, urging the former speaker to give up his "excuses," including for poor debate performances, and attempting to tie him to failed housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"He’s now finding excuses everywhere he can. He’s on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he thinks he’s had difficulty here in Florida, but you know, we’ve got a president who has a lot of excuses, and the excuses are over, it’s time to produce," Romney said.
"it’s time to look in the mirror," Romney said. "And my own view is the reason that Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is that people of Florida have watched the debates, have listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, you know what, Mitt Romney’s the guy we’re going to support."
Segueing straight into the issue of housing, with which the Romney campaign has hammered both Gingrich and President Obama since arriving in Florida last week, Romney blamed government intrusion into the housing market for Florida's precipitous drop in housing prices and the epidemic of foreclosures here. He reminded the crowd of Gingrich's contract with housing giant Freddie Mac, and proceeded to lash the two together as another cause of Gingrich's slide in the latest Florida polls.
"So Mr. Speaker, your trouble in Florida is not because the audience is too quiet or too loud, or because you have opponents that are tough. Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people, and that you're selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth in Washington," Romney said.
The New York Times reported Sunday morning that the strategy of deploying a "meaner" Mitt Romney was a deliberate one by the campaign, which learned a hard lesson after essentially letting Gingrich back up off the mat after Iowa, only to be stung by a 12-point defeat in South Carolina last week.
Now, even as a new NBC News/Marist poll shows Romney opening a 15-point lead in the Sunshine State, the Romney campaign has refused to let up on Gingrich on any front. In addition to Romney's frontal assault, the campaign released a new web video attacking Gingrich for his ethics violation in the 1990s, and using surrogates like Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) to draw further contrast with Gingrich, and push back on the former speaker's efforts to label Romney a liar.
"There are others in this race that have a very checkered past when it comes to ethics and honesty. But not Mitt Romney," Mack said as part of his introduction for Romney. "He’s someone we can believe in and trust."