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NAPLES, Fla. — The increasingly negative tone of the GOP presidential primary race here comes as no surprise to Mitt Romney supporter Paul Juster.
"If you're going to get in the ring with the big boys, you've got to be just as bad. If you're in a viper pit, you've got to be a viper," said Juster, who retired to Florida from Massachusetts, where Romney served as governor.
Romney is on the attack and key supporters from Utah are playing a role in helping him take on chief rival Newt Gingrich. With the election only days away, polls show the strategy appears to be working.
Juster said he's trying to ignore the bitter back-and-forth between Romney and Gingrich. "They can shoot each other in the foot all they want," he said. Still, he said it may be what's needed against an opponent like Gingrich, who won the South Carolina primary after hammering Romney on the business dealings that earned him millions.
The loss taught Romney a lesson, Juster said. "It's a shame that it has to be this way."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is campaigning for Romney in Florida, said voters need to hear the tougher talk.
"I think people want him to be more proactive," Chaffetz told the Deseret News. "I think that was one of the challenges in South Carolina."
The newly aggressive Romney campaign is to show he can "take the fight to Barack Obama. That was the concern I heard from people, does he have the fight in his belly. This demonstrates he does," Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz, who first hit the campaign trail for Romney in Iowa, is attending Gingrich campaign events as a Romney surrogate, offering the media an immediate response to any statements made by the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Other Utah political figures helping Romney include former Gov. Mike Leavitt.
"I'm pitching in wherever I can," Leavitt said before leaving Florida on Sunday. "Romney supporters have reason to feel optimistic, but there is little certainty, and all systems are at full throttle."
Frank Ball, another retiree in Naples, said he understands the need for Romney to go on the attack.
"I'd be happier if it wasn't taking place," Ball, a Romney supporter, said. "But I don't think anyone can stand by if the guy is doing that. South Carolina proved that."
Naples resident Stacy Fields said she's not bothered by the negative ads from both Romney and Gingrich that are blanketing the airwaves.
Nor is she concerned when the candidates criticize each other on the campaign trail.
She said she had considered voting for Gingrich. "I liked his toughness, but I just feel Romney would make a better president," Fields said. "But he could be tougher."
The new edge was evident Sunday, when Romney compared Gingrich to Goldilocks, the fairy-tale character who finds fault with everything during a speech to a crowd of some 1,000 mostly retirees gathered at a Naples shopping and entertainment complex.
Romney, who is leading in several polls by more than 10 percentage points over Gingrich, reminded the crowd of his debate performance earlier this week, where he was uncharacteristically aggressive, calling it "a hoot."
He said it may be time for Gingrich "to look in the mirror" rather than make excuses for his slide in support and then slammed the former speaker for "selling influence in Washington."
Later, Romney flaunted his new feistiness when hecklers tried to interrupt a speech outside a restaurant in largely Hispanic Hialeah, near Miami.
"You can speak as long as you want to," Romney said, raising his voice and gesturing in the direction of the undecipherable taunts. "We will stand for freedom and we will not be shouted down by those who would change America. We will stand for the America we love."
The crowd, who'd already been won over by Romney's youngest son, Craig, addressing them in Spanish and Romney's tough talk about Castro and other dictators, cheered wildly.
University of Miami political science professor Casey Klofstad said Romney needed to "take some plays out of Gingrich's playbook," because he tended to be "very wooden, very stiff" rather than fired up.
"Look, in Miami at least, there's a lot of flash, a lot of spontaneity," Klofstad said, describing Florida as a microcosm of the entire nation. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter, said Republicans are "a little angry. And they want to see some of that anger in their candidate."
Romney had focused most of his critical comments in previous states on President Barack Obama, attempting to set himself up as the presumptive GOP nominee. But after his disappointing loss in South Carolina, he switched strategies.
"He realized he needed to show not just that he could take a punch, but that he could swing back as well," Jowers said.
Even so, Jowers said Romney isn't really any different than he was as the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"It's the same Romney," Jowers said. "I think Utahns will be appreciative that when he takes some unfair punches to the face in South Carolina, he will defend himself in Florida."
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