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Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney sought to seize the upper hand in the Republican presidential race after his 14-point triumph in Florida, assailing rival Newt Gingrich as not a “pure conservative” even as he defended his own attitude toward economically disadvantaged Americans.
As the contest moved west in advance of Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor said Gingrich had strayed from core party principles by advocating action to curb climate change, criticizing a Republican Medicare plan and backing a national mandate to purchase health care. For his part, Gingrich has branded Romney a “Massachusetts moderate” to stoke resistance to his candidacy among the Republican base.
“I’m not saying he’s not conservative; I’m just saying he’s not the pure conservative he would have people believe,” Romney said yesterday of Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker.
Romney, 64, a former private equity executive, is facing fresh questions about whether he is out of touch with less- fortunate people after remarking to CNN in an interview that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because they have many programs to help them.
He told reporters on his campaign plane yesterday that his comment was taken out of context.
“No, no, no, no,” Romney protested when asked about his statement. “I’ve said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle- income people, all right?” He said poor people have an “ample safety net,” including Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“If there are people that are falling through the cracks, I want to fix that,” Romney said. “Wealthy people are doing fine. But my focus in the campaign is on middle-income people.”
Gingrich, 68, defiant after his double-digit loss in Florida and vowing to stay in the race for months grappling for delegates, pounced on Romney’s comments, saying they illuminated a “perfect distinction” between himself and his competitor.
At a rally in Reno, Nevada, Gingrich said he is “fed up with politicians of either party dividing Americans against each other. I am running to be the president of all the American people and I am concerned about all the American people.”
Gingrich has cast his candidacy in populist terms, portraying Romney as beholden to Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers. He attributed his Florida loss to the large spending disparity between Romney and his allies, who hammered him with negative televisions advertising, and Gingrich and his own backers.
“We are going to pit people-power against money-power in this campaign,” Gingrich said.
Real estate developer Donald Trump, whose flirtations last year with his own presidential run added an unpredictable element to the Republican contest, planned what he billed as a “major announcement” today in Las Vegas. Several news organizations reported it would be an endorsement of Gingrich, citing anonymous campaign sources. Gingrich’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment from Bloomberg News.
“I have no idea what the Donald is going to do,” Gingrich told reporters yesterday in Reno. “He is always interesting, and I don’t know of anybody who does a better job of getting attention by announcing that he will presently announce something.”
Pressing for Advantage
Romney arrived in Las Vegas last night and drew hundreds of people to a rally in a paper warehouse, pressing for advantage in Nevada, where Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, also were campaigning ahead of the caucuses. The race was shifting into a different phase, featuring a series of caucuses that will test the candidates’ organizational strength.
There are six contests in February -- starting with this weekend’s Nevada balloting and rolling caucuses in Maine that last into next week. They continue with Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7 and then primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb 28.
Santorum, counting on support from socially conservative voters who oppose abortion rights and gay marriage, was endorsed by Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-aligned politician who lost her 2010 bid to oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Santorum “has never wavered in his support for family values, understanding the impact that strong families have on a prosperous economy,” Angle said in a statement yesterday to National Review Online. “His continuous opposition to amnesty, Obamacare, the bail-outs and cap and trade are a perfect fit with our main street Tea Party movement.”
Keeping an eye on his Republican foes, Romney also refocused his fire on President Barack Obama, portraying him as a feckless leader, “detached from reality” and lacking the ability to reignite the lagging economy.
“He does not know how to lead America; he is detached from the American people,” Romney said at a rally in Eagan, Minnesota. “I will stay in touch with the American people, and I will lead us back to prosperity.”
Romney also said Obama displayed “naivete” about foreign affairs, reflected by an announcement yesterday by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan would end its primary combat role in mid-2013.
“Why in the world do you go to the people that you are fighting with and tell them the day you are pulling out your troops?” Romney said at the rally. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
Most Diverse State
Romney’s win in Florida -- the most populous and diverse state to weigh in so far in the Republican race -- earned him 50 delegates and dealt a blow to Gingrich after the former speaker had triumphed in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary. Gingrich, who finished second in Florida, vowed to press on, as did Santorum, who ran third, and Paul, who finished fourth.
Romney beat Gingrich in the urban centers of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach County, in the cities of southwest Florida, across a swath of Central Florida from Tampa to Orlando and Daytona Beach, and in northeast Jacksonville. Gingrich defeated Romney in 35 less-populated counties -- painting a contrast between Romney’s urban and suburban support and Gingrich’s appeal to rural Republicans.
--With assistance from Amanda J. Crawford in Reno, Nevada. Editors: Jim Rubin, Paul Tighe
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