DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As we've been reporting on the program this morning, Mitt Romney went on the attack at the GOP presidential debate in Florida last night. His target was rival Newt Gingrich, who was forced to defend his record as House speaker and later as a consultant to mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich denied charges of influence peddling that were leveled by Romney. And Gingrich said he was the type of bold, tough leader Washington needs.
NEWT GINGRICH: They're not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay. They're sending somebody to Washington to change it. And that requires somebody who's prepared to be controversial when necessary.
GREENE: And that's the part of his record that appeals to many of his supporters, especially, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, those in the Tea Party.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Karen Hoffman is both a Tea Party activist and a big Gingrich supporter. She founded a group in South Florida - D.C. Works for Us - and has signed on as Gingrich's campaign co-chair in Broward County. She says Gingrich has shown he cares about the Tea Party and its issues.
KAREN HOFFMAN: Newt has consistently reached out to the Tea Party leaders through conference calls. He came down to South Florida about 10 months ago and actually wanted to have an open discussion with the Tea Party leaders regarding issues and flying ideas past him.
ALLEN: Hoffman watched last night's debate and the pounding Gingrich took from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. For much of the first 10 minutes, Romney forced Gingrich to talk about the ethics investigation conducted while he was House speaker and whether he was a lobbyist or just a consultant for Freddie Mac. Hoffman says it wasn't pretty, but thinks it was a distraction that most Republicans will dismiss.
Ray Sanchez, president of the Volusia 912 group in Ormond Beach, is no Romney fan. But there's a lot about Gingrich, he says, that Tea Party supporters should be wary of. His support of the bank bailout, for example, and other big government programs.
RAY SANCHEZ: He talked about being like an FDR, of just getting things done. When you hear him saying those things out of his own mouth, that he is professed to be a progressive, is one of the things that the Tea Party really should run away from.
ALLEN: But polls and interviews with Tea Party leaders suggest Gingrich is picking up support within the conservative movement. And Fred Scheibl thinks he knows why.
FRED SCHEIBL: He's a rebel.
ALLEN: Scheibl is active with the Palm Beach County Tea Party and another Santorum supporter.
One activist I spoke to called Gingrich a bulldog. Another said he liked the way Gingrich attacks the media. Scheibl says what appeals to activists is Gingrich's aggressive approach, the kind that he believes will be needed if Republicans win the White House.
SCHEIBL: We need someone who's a bomb thrower and go in there and really make some changes. And although it gives you pause what sort of a president Newt Gingrich would make, you probably would argue that he would throw a few bombs and shake up the tree.
ALLEN: Scheibl says of all the candidates, Texas Congressman Ron Paul probably comes closest to the Tea Party in his belief in a smaller, more limited government. The problem is Paul's views on foreign policy, which Scheibl says for some in the Tea Party appear isolationist, even unpatriotic.
In Sarasota last week, the Manatee County Tea Party held a straw poll of its members. More than half supported Santorum, and Gingrich came in third. The group's vice president, Steve Vernon, suspects if the straw poll were taken today, the result would be dramatically different. He still supports Santorum, but Vernon says if the former Pennsylvania senator wants to hold on to his Tea Party support, he needs to sharpen his strategy.
STEVE VERNON: He should be focusing on the differences, contrasting himself with Newt. That's what he should be. Because a lot of the conservatives are thinking Newt and that's what he's got to change.
ALLEN: Both Santorum and Gingrich are working hard to reach Tea Party activists and other conservatives who'll be voting in next week's Florida primary. Vernon's group is one of those sponsoring a rally the Gingrich campaign is holding later today in Sarasota.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.