The New York Times:
Facing the unthinkable here just seven days ago — a second loss in a row to Newt Gingrich — Mitt Romney’s campaign team hatched a two-part plan to win in Florida: make Newt mad and Mitt meaner.
In a call last Sunday morning, just hours after Mr. Romney’s double-digit loss to Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary, the Romney team outlined the new approach to the candidate. Put aside the more acute focus on President Obama and narrow in on Mr. Gingrich.
Find lines of attack that could goad Mr. Gingrich into angry responses and rally mainstream Republicans. Swarm Gingrich campaign events to rattle him. Have Mr. Romney drop his above-the-fray persona and carry the fight directly to his opponent, especially in two critical debates scheduled for the week.
The results of that strategy, carried out by a veteran squad of strategists and operatives assembled by Mr. Romney to deal with just this kind of moment, have been on striking display here.
By this weekend, Mr. Romney’s aides were on the offensive and increasingly confident, with some combination of their strategy and Mr. Gingrich’s own performance swinging polls in Mr. Romney’s direction. Even as it acknowledged the damage inflicted on Mr. Romney by the past several weeks, his team suggested that it had learned a lesson about never letting up on rivals, especially if Mr. Romney wins the nomination and confronts Mr. Obama in the general election.
(...) With the Florida primary two days away, Mr. Gingrich is now facing the full capabilities of a Romney team that was built for battle, but that by several accounts became so confident during primary season that it failed to see Mr. Gingrich’s latest resurgence coming, presuming that he had been left for dead in Iowa.
“We had a moment where we kind of started drinking our own Kool-Aid, and it looked like we were just going to blow through it,” said John D. Rood, a chairman of Mr. Romney’s Florida finance team. “There is a little humility in getting your butt kicked in South Carolina, and all of the sudden it’s a wake-up call.”
Behind the scenes, it was more than that. It was a call to arms employing all the visible and invisible tactics of political warfare. As recently as Wednesday, several Romney advisers, donors and supporters were speaking in terms of what losing in Florida would mean and how they could survive it.
If Mr. Romney does win here on Tuesday, it will have been through a blistering and unrelenting series of attacks. His campaign has pressed everything at its disposal into service to eviscerate Mr. Gingrich, painting him as an erratic, unreliable Washington insider in mailings and television advertisements, at two critical debates here (where his team made sure Mr. Romney had ample and vocal supporters in the audiences) and even by sending supporters to mock him at his own events.
(...) David Kochel, an adviser who arrived here from Iowa to oversee the pressure campaign, described the strategy as “let’s go rush the quarterback.” A team of Romney boosters started infiltrating nearly every Gingrich campaign stop to offer instant rebuttals. Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah showed up to challenge Mr. Gingrich’s record to reporters and at one point tangled with Mr. Gingrich’s press secretary as the cameras rolled. Bay Buchanan, a longtime conservative activist, worked on the Romney campaign’s behalf to win over voters and commentators.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, had been receiving help from a new debate adviser — Brett O’Donnell, a longtime leader of the Liberty University debate team who advised Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in her campaign last year — and assumed a new role as the campaign’s chief attacker, relinquishing his old approach of leaving the dirty work to supporters and a friendly super PAC.
A team of some of the most fearsome researchers in the business, led by Mr. Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, spent days dispensing negative information about Mr. Gingrich, much of it finding its way to the influential Drudge Report, which often serves as a guide for conservative talk radio and television assignment editors and to which Mr. Rhoades has close ties.
(...) The Romney team was also carefully tracking Mr. Gingrich’s every utterance for a potential opening. What an aide described as a “eureka moment” came just hours before the debate on Thursday night. At a Tea Party rally in the Central Florida town of Mount Dora that day, Mr. Gingrich had opened a new line of attack, noting that Mr. Romney had investments in funds that included shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lenders.
Mr. Romney’s opposition-research team in Boston quickly dug into Mr. Gingrich’s own publicly disclosed holdings to find that he, too, had mutual funds invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The information was quickly fed to Mr. Romney during his private debate preparation session at a hotel in downtown Jacksonville.
When Mr. Romney delivered the attack against Mr. Gingrich that evening, Mr. Gingrich was left with no substantive response, a killer blow that helped keep Mr. Gingrich from commanding the debate stage as he had in South Carolina.
(...) As early as the day of the primary in South Carolina, the Boston team had returned to the drawing board, realizing that it had erred in leaving Mr. Gingrich to resuscitate his candidacy. “There was a belief among some that he was done; clearly that wasn’t the case,” said one Romney aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He likened the unanticipated comeback of Mr. Gingrich to a character from a horror movie who refuses to die.
Even as Mr. Gingrich was cruising to victory in South Carolina last Saturday, Mr. Romney’s team was meeting, setting aside its focus on Mr. Obama to treat Mr. Gingrich as its chief obstacle, realizing that a loss here in Florida could cripple the campaign.
Breaking into teams, they divided duties for a new plan to put unrelenting pressure on Mr. Gingrich, hoping to make him angry enough to throw him off track and remind voters about the most unflattering aspects of a record forgotten during a decade in which he solidified his status as a wise man in the party.
The Romney research department began studying Mr. Gingrich’s vulnerabilities, specifically the attacks, many of them employed by a pro-Romney super PAC, that had led to Mr. Gingrich’s collapse in Iowa. There, the team had observed that Mr. Gingrich seemed to become distracted and angry over negative advertisements and attacks on issues like his ethics problems in Congress and his work on behalf of corporate clients in Washington after he left the House.
Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens, Mr. Romney’s senior strategists, also know Florida well as onetime advisers to former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Senator Mel Martinez and George W. Bush. They unleashed their first negative advertisement early last week. It links Mr. Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac to the housing crisis here.
But, most of all, the attempt to regain an advantage rested on Mr. Romney’s own shoulders and his ability to deliver sharper distinctions, as an aide put it.
Mr. Romney was still in South Carolina when the team, led by Mr. Rhoades, presented the plan to him. “He was on the road, and there was a call with him on Sunday morning where we laid out all the different pieces of what was going on,” Mr. Schriefer said. “He asked questions, but it wasn’t a particularly long call; it was very calm, sort of ‘O.K., guys, let’s go win in Florida.’ ”