In Hialeah, Florida, a heavily Cuban suburb of Miami, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looked energized and comfortable before a raucous crowd during a Sunday campaign event. The man had – dare we say – swagger.
And as well Romney should, given that most recent polls show him leading his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – by about 10 points leading up to Tuesday's primary vote.
After a staggering double-digit loss to Gingrich in South Carolina a little more than a week ago, Romney's campaign has turned things around with a dose of the speaker's own medicine – strong debate performances.
"He talked about in the first debate the crowd was too quiet and in the second debate the crowd was too noisy and then more recently he's talking about me and he's looking for some kind of excuse," Romney told the mostly Cuban-American crowd of a couple hundred. Hialeah has a population of about 225,000, according to the 2010 census, and has the second highest percentage of Cuban Americans of any U.S. city.
Romney clearly relishes the chance to deride Gingrich's debate appearances, because throughout the campaign, pundits and certainly the speaker himself have widely showered praise on Gingrich for his ability to win over audiences with strong showings on stage.
"But I'm afraid the real reason he hasn't been successful connecting with the people of Florida is his message and the failure to connect to the needs of the people of this state and the fact is, you've had a chance to see Speaker Gingrich," Romney said. "Twice now on TV you've heard his message and increasingly you're saying you want to go in a different direction."
Romney has been unrelenting in his criticism of Gingrich thorough the Florida campaign, including swamping residents with negative television and radio advertisements, as well as mailers. More than $24 million has been spent by all the campaigns and outside spending groups in Florida advertising over the last 10 days, according to reports, and most of it has been negative. In one devastatingly effective ad, the Romney campaign simply ran 30 seconds of Tom Brokaw in an NBC news broadcast from the 1990s on the night Gingrich was reprimanded by his own House. Brokaw and NBC have asked the campaign to halt use of the commercial, but so far to no avail.
Romney himself said on NBC's Today show Monday morning that the ad works so well because "there's no scary music" in the background – it's simply the unfiltered account of events as they were. Other ads have undercut Gingrich's assertion that he is the "heir" to Ronald Reagan's mantle.
The move to go all-out in attacking Gingrich is in many ways a return to what works. The Romney camp did it in Iowa before the caucuses to great effect.
But something else has changed in Florida, though likely due to his changing fortune. At the event in Hialeah – one of three he participated in on Sunday in south Florida – Romney was loose and confident. Whereas while campaigning in states earlier this year, he seemed to be just going through the motions and performing a task, on Sunday in Florida he appeared to have fun.
He began by introducing his youngest son, Craig, and grandson, Parker, to the crowd.
"Say a word or two will and say it in Spanish, too will ya? En Espanol," the presidential candidate said.
Craig Romney obliged.
"Mi papa no hable espanol," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd. Still speaking in Spanish, he added that his dad does speak the language of the economy and of prosperity, a line at which the audience cheered.
In his own speech, Romney took turns needling Gingrich and his usual target, President Obama.
"I have been successful as a leader; I didn't get pushed out as a leader," Romney said in a reference to Gingrich.
Romney accused Obama of no having any ideas.
He says he has ideas but you listen and I can't hear them, he just has excuses," he said. "One thing I can tell you, he's out of ideas, he's out of excuses, and in 2012 we'll make sure he's out of a job in the White House."