PANAMA CITY, Fla.—It was as flashy an entrance as Mitt Romney has ever made into a campaign event.
"Ladies and gentleman, if you turn to your left, give a Panama City welcome to MIIIITT ROMMMMNEEEY," an announcer said. Hundreds of onlookers craned their necks as Romney's campaign bus began barreling down a dusty road leading to a rally at a local shipyard here.
Instead of Romney's usual entrance song—"Born Free" by Kid Rock—"Panama," Van Halen's rock anthem, began to blare from the speakers at the event. Romney, sitting shotgun, wore a wide grin. David Lee Roth, Van Halen's frontman, claimed he wrote "Panama" about his fast car—though the suggestive lyrics seem to be more about a fast girl.
The out-of-character soundtrack on Saturday seemed to illustrate Romney's growing confidence in Florida on the weekend before Tuesday's primary.
In the week since Romney's double-digit loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, he has gone from being a candidate on the defensive to a man with a confident swagger. The rally felt like a general-election campaign event. On stage, Romney took aim at President Barack Obama, who has been the primary focus of his stump speeches in recent months.
But after several minutes, Romney paused. "Now I'm speaking to you today as if I'm already the candidate for president for the Republican Party," he said. "But I'm not. I've still got some primaries to go through."
With that, Romney turned his focus to Gingrich, delivering one of his toughest attacks on the former Speaker of the House this weekend, even as numerous polls now show Romney comfortably ahead in Florida.
"You know, I am running against Speaker Gingrich … a very nice fellow," Romney said. "He's a historian, but that doesn't give him a right to rewrite history. He was given the opportunity to lead our party … He failed."
Revisiting the ethics scandal that marred Gingrich's tenure in the House, Romney told the crowd that the former speaker had "resigned in disgrace."
"We have to go back and look at history and say, 'He may be a great guy with great ideas, but he's not going to be the leader we need,'" Romney said.
Along the sidelines, Romney's top aides—including senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and top strategist Stuart Stevens—beamed, clearly pleased by their boss' tough rhetoric. The old Romney would have been content at focusing his entire speech on Obama—an approach the campaign has been forced to tweak after South Carolina.
In a strategy that can only be described as annihilation, the Romney campaign is keeping the pressure on Gingrich, in hopes of eliminating him from the race once and for all. Tactically, Romney insiders admit the campaign made a mistake in not taking on Gingrich more over the last month, admitting Romney might have performed better in South Carolina had he done so.
Now, Romney is making up for lost time. Over the weekend, Romney rolled out a slew of new Gingrich attacks, including a new analogy likening Gingrich to "Goldilocks" for griping about crowds at last week's presidential debates.
At a rally in Naples on Sunday that attracted roughly 2,000 people, Romney suggested Gingrich is whining about his standing in Florida. Pointing to an interview Gingrich gave to ABC's This Week in which he accused Romney of running a "campaign of vilification" in Florida, the candidate used the pivot to attack the ex-speaker even more.
"He's now finding excuses everywhere he can," Romney said in Naples. "I think each of us, if we fail somewhere, if we fail in a debate, if we fail to get the support of people, it's time to look in the mirror. And my own view is the reason that Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is the people of Florida have watched the debates, and listened to the speaker and listened to the other candidates and said, You know what, Mitt Romney is the guy we're going to support."
Romney has been careful to avoid looking too confident heading into Tuesday's primary. But there are moments when he can't seem to help himself, including in Panama City, where he seemed more invigorated than usual.
Working the rope line afterward, a reporter asked Romney how he's feeling about Florida.
"I just feel like things are going in our direction," Romney happily declared. "I am hoping for a big turn out, and I think we are going to win here, I sure hope so."
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