As Florida primary fight turns personal, Republican insiders fear for party unity

TAMPA, Fla. — Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney may be on a path toward mutually assured destruction, and both are refusing to unilaterally disarm.

Gone from the race in Florida are the long-winded outlines of their plans to create jobs, cut the national debt and pull homeowners out of foreclosure. Gone are the policy-based condemnations of who is too moderate or whose tax plan too unrealistic.

They’ve been replaced by attacks that would make a kindergarten teacher call a foul: Gingrich says Romney is a liar; Romney says Gingrich is a failure.

Republican insiders worry it’s not just bad for party unity, but could sink the GOP’s electoral chances far beyond the presidential race.

“This has got to stop,” said Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and head of the American Conservative Union. “Either because someone very soon becomes the de facto nominee or because they agree to a truce on personal issues.”

As the political atmosphere has become more primal over the past few weeks, polls show President Obama expanding his spread over his potential November opponents, Cardenas said — and the correlation is not coincidental.

At a rally Saturday at a shipbuilding site in Panama City, Fla., Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said he was running against a man who wants to rewrite history.

“He was given the opportunity to lead our party. You’re right, he failed,” Romney said. “What happened four years later? Well, he was fined for ethics violations. He ultimately had to resign in disgrace.”

In the opposite corner of the state, in the town of Port St. Lucie, Gingrich said his opponent’s duplicity had caused him to stare in amazement.

"You cannot debate someone who's dishonest. You just can't,” Gingrich said.

The Thursday debate to which Gingrich alluded was conspicuously devoid of the serious policy discussions that characterized the earlier rounds of the presidential contest. The candidates socked each other over whose finances were more unscrupulous, whose ads more repulsive, whose position more anti-immigrant.

The economy was a mere afterthought.

Some of it may be par for the course in Florida, where the importance of air wars leads to the proliferation of television ads that are often harsh. Some of it may be due to the ever-increasing role of super-PACs, whose modus operandi is the personal attack ad.

But the tone the candidates have taken in their public appearances ahead of Florida’s primary on Tuesday proves that’s only part of the story.

Adding to the fracas are two other factors: Democrats, and the other GOP candidates.

Democrats see Romney as the biggest threat to Obama’s reelection, and thus have been all too willing to dovetail with Gingrich’s line of attack. The Democratic National Committee circulated a memo on Friday detailing "10 ways Mitt Romney distorted the truth" in the most recent debate.

And although Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who round out the four Republicans still competing for the party’s nomination, have been decidedly more civil than the two front-runners, their composure has gone essentially unnoticed in the Sunshine State.

Unable to compete financially with Gingrich and Romney in Florida, Paul and Santorum have turned their attention elsewhere. Both are actively campaigning in other states, but with the bulk of the political press corps preoccupied with Tuesday’s primary, their efforts to stay relevant have gone largely unnoticed.

And while the aggressive tactics might have played well in South Carolina, a state known for its down-and-dirty politics, it poses a real risk of alienating the very different electorate in Florida.

“It’s not the most pragmatic thing to do in a state with a lot of older voters for whom civility is still an issue, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “The majority of the electorate on Tuesday will be over 50, and this just leaves them scratching their heads.”

But politically advantageous or not, neither Gingrich nor Romney is likely to be the first to lay down his arms and risk getting clobbered while his defenses are down.

“The big loser is everybody in the conservative movement,” said Cardenas. “The whole ticket — up and down the ballot.”

- Niall Stanage in Port St. Lucie, Fla. contributed.