NAPLES — Rubbing shoulders with prominent Southwest Floridians, Mitt Romney blasted rival Newt Gingrich and proclaimed himself a champion for American exceptionalism in a final appeal to Naples supporters Sunday.
With between 2,000 and 3,000 people crammed between a stage, crowd barriers and media risers, downtown Sugden Plaza took on the feel of a rock concert. Fifth Avenue briefly shut down as the rally spilled into the street.
A parade of opening acts preceded Romney's 16-minute stump speech. One was U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, who is among Romney's most proactive Florida supporters, and his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III of Florida.
Even as Romney pulls ahead of Gingrich by double-digits in the most recent polls, Romney and the younger Mack — himself campaigning for the U.S. Senate — took to tearing down Gingrich.
Last week, the former House Speaker clutched the momentum he had gained by winning the South Carolina primary and attracted some 6,000 people to Cambier Park. Gingrich, addressing the throngs in a dark suit, hammered President Barack Obama from behind a lectern.
On Sunday, Romney, looking tan with rolled-up sleeves and khaki pants, was animated and carried his microphone around the stage. He compared Gingrich to fairy tale Goldilocks because he said he neither likes silent debate audiences nor loud ones.
Gingrich is "finding excuses everywhere he can," Romney said. "He's on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks are the reasons he's had difficulty here in Florida.
"But, you know, we've got a president who has a lot of excuses. The excuses are over. It's time to produce."
Gingrich is scheduled to make a final stop in Southwest Florida on Monday with a 3 p.m. event at Fort Myers' Page Field.
On Tuesday, Florida Republicans will cast what could be the deciding vote in the GOP primary race because of the state's position as a large early voting state.
When Romney ran for president in 2008, he won Collier and Lee counties, though Arizona Sen. John McCain carried the state. Now, much of Romney's support is still intact.
Well-known Southwest Floridians streamed into Naples on Sunday and paraded across the stage to pump up their candidate. State Reps. Kathleen Passidomo of Naples and Gary Aubuchon of Cape Coral, who is running for Mack's soon-vacant congressional seat, both spoke. As did Collier County Commissioner Fred Coyle and Mayor-elect John Sorey.
"If the other candidates out there tell you that somehow (Romney) is not honest, we don't believe them," Mack said, adding that "there are others in this race who have a very checkered past when it comes to ethics and honest, but not Mitt Romney."
The remark was a veiled allusion to Gingrich. Romney also piled on, condemning government-backed mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as examples of failed government overreach. He credited the lenders with contributing to the collapsed housing market — a topic he knew would resonate here in Naples.
Then he repeated criticisms of Gingrich, who worked as a consultant for Freddie Mac in the 1990s until the mid-2000s.
"At the time, some people were standing up and saying we need to reform this system" of offering bad loans, Romney said. But "Speaker Gingrich was being paid $1.6 million to stand up and do what he did, which is to say, 'These programs should continue the way they are. These institutions are fine.'"
While Romney has made housing a key point in his Florida campaign — he spoke in front of a foreclosed Lehigh Acres home last week — some were ready to call his bluff Sunday.
A small group of Occupy Naples and Fort Myers protesters made themselves seen at the back of the crowd. One woman sang throughout the speech. They carried signs decrying corporate influence on Washington and alluded to Romney's wealth.
"I think he's out of touch with how people outside of Naples live," said Occupy protester Ron Saberton, 63, of Fort Myers, who also acknowledged that the Romney supporters were "cordial."
The crowd, most of whom wore Romney stickers on their shirts, cheered his attacks on both Gingrich and Obama.
A significant portion of Romney's brief presentation was devoted to portraying himself as fiercely patriotic. He thanked the military veterans in the crowd, quoted from "America the Beautiful" and said Americans are "special" compared to other nationalities.
"I do not want a president like our current incumbent of the White House who wants to fundamentally transform America into something we might not recognize," Romney said.
Naples Mayor Bill Barnett gave Romney a key to the city (Gingrich has one, too), and soon Romney was on his way to the east coast for a stop in Hialeah. The candidates continue their tours Monday and Tuesday.
Like several other Neapolitans in the audience Sunday, Tom Melvin, 68, sees Romney as the most presidential Republican candidate. He doesn't believe Gingrich could defeat Obama.
"Republicans have a way of goofing and making mistakes," said Melvin, who has already voted for Romney. "We hope they don't do it this time."
Staff writer Kristine Gill contributed to this report.