SARASOTA, Fla. — As he moved to consolidate the conservative base behind him, Newt Gingrich on Tuesday waved the red cape of a former Florida governor who quit the Republican Party and lost to Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio — a line that got a big reaction from crowds who have not forgotten that act of moderate apostasy.
At event after event on Florida’s southwest coast, Gingrich boasted that his state campaign manager had run Rubio’s 2010 Senate race, whereas Mitt Romney had hired “the people who ran Charlie Crist’s campaign.”
The line drew boos at the mention of Crist, who in his pre-Tea Party days was one of the most popular Republican governors in the country.
Gingrich would like nothing better than to draw on the activism and passion of the Tea Party movement. Exit polls showed voters who said they supported the Tea Party backed Romney when he won in New Hampshire, then in South Carolina Gingrich won a 20-point advantage among Tea Party supporters en route to his commanding victory Saturday.
That momentum may roll on for him in Florida, a state less conservative than South Carolina, but where the Tea Party claimed an important role in the 2010 victories of Rubio and Rick Scott, the governor.√Ç
Tea Party leaders said they have been aggressively courted by all of the campaigns. With the withdrawal of other candidates who once energized the movement — Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry — their votes have been in play.
When Cain dropped out, up until 2 1/2 weeks ago there was a vacuum,” said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, the largest in the state, who said Cain was once the favorite of 80 to 90 percent of the 100,000 people on his email list. “I think it’s being filled right now very quickly by Gingrich.”
Another Tea Party leader, Billie Tucker of the First Coast Tea Party, said she was seeing a similar surge, although Rick Santorum and Ron Paul also had supporters. Romney, she said, ``has not really been involved in the Tea Party movement like the others.
“The reason people really like Newt right now is because the things we’ve all been thinking, he’s saying it,” she said.
After Gingrich’s aggressive debate outings last week in South Carolina, when he directed fire at “elites” in Washington and the media, people are concluding “he’s got courage,” she said. “We don’t want be milquetoast.”