JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—“It was Grumpy Gingrich this morning,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz was saying. “When the attention seems to be focused on Gingrich, that’s when he becomes unhinged.”
Chaffetz, a two-term congressman from Utah and a diehard Mitt Romney supporter, was spending his Thursday—five days before the clash of the Republican titans, otherwise known as the Florida primary—crashing Newt Gingrich speeches and trashing the former speaker of the House to the traveling press. In this case, he was panning an allegedly irritable morning appearance that Romney’s arch-enemy made in front of Tea Partiers in Mount Dora, Fla.
Hours later at the University of North Florida here, where Gingrich spoke to about 200 voters who showed up for a speech hosted by the Veterans for a Strong America, Chaffetz, in navy pinstripe suit and tie, was joined by fellow anti-Newt surrogates Ft. Myers congressman Connie Mack, and his wife, Mary Bono Mack, a House member from Palm Springs, Calif., and the widow of late congressman Sonny Bono, the ‘60s pop star of Sonny & Cher fame.
They hung back behind the camera stand, whispering sour nothings to otherwise bored media types as various Gingrich campaign warm-up speakers tried to keep the crowd engaged.
“I’m waiting to see if Newt’s going to answer the questions about his Freddie Mac contracts,” Connie Mack told one such scribe. “It’s just dishonest.”
Mary Bono Mack, who, unlike her husband, served under Gingrich when he was speaker, told me: “I believe Newt is a great thinker. I do not believe that his leadership skills are what we need in a president. He’s so busy thinking, he leaves a wake of carnage behind him.”
It was apparent that while Bono Mack was in charge of leadership shortcomings, her husband was responsible for sleazy Washington insiderism, and Chaffetz was riding herd on mental and emotional instability. Also on hand was Romney adviser Dave Kochel, who was leaving the heavy lifting to the elected officials. “But I’ll do unelectable and I’ll do Medicare Part D lobbyist,” he offered. “How’s that for a division of labor?”
Chaffetz said that at the earlier event he was confronted by Gingrich press secretary R.C. Hammond, who supposedly told him, “You can’t be here!” To which Chaffetz responded, “Really? It was Newt’s idea to follow Obama around, and this is the same thing….See you at the next event, R.C.”
In Hammond’s version (yes, he did see Chaffetz at the next event), he grilled the congressman on whether he was ready to quit the Romney juggernaut now that it has been reported that half of the former Massachusetts governor’s high-level supporters were lobbyists for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
In due course, Newt arrived, delivered an un-newsy talk about national security and the need to support veterans, and then stood on a receiving line with his young wife Callista. There was absolutely nothing in Gingrich’s speech that Chaffetz didn’t agree with.
“It was pretty standard,” he said, ungenerously.
Sometimes even a presidential campaign is just like high school.