In South Florida, Bachmann tees off on rivals

Michele Bachmann popped unexpectedly into South Florida on Thursday and started throwing haymakers at Republican presidential frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

Bachmann called Gingrich an “influence peddler” and said he has flip-flopped just like Romney. And voters won’t buy it, she said.

“They want to know what’s the truth,” she said at an appearance at the Weston Fort Lauderdale. “They’re not interested in a chameleon.”

Just the day before, Gingrich took umbrage at Bachmann’s criticism of his immigration plan and called her “factually challenged” — a comment that highlighted the Minnesota congresswoman’s penchant for gaffes and misstatements.

The verbal tussles between the candidates is becoming more common as the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses draw closer, followed by New Hampshire and South Carolina. Florida — the largest and most influential swing state — holds its primary Jan. 31. Amid the criticisms of each other, all the candidates say President Obama has been a failure.

A spate of recent state and national polls show Gingrich is running away with the nomination — at least for now. Three surveys released Wednesday and Thursday show Gingrich, once polling in the single digits, garnering between 40 percent to 50 percent of the Republican vote in Florida. Romney barely gets 20 percent.

Bachmann, once a top-tier candidate, gets only 1 percent of the vote in the latest Florida poll, conducted by American Research Group, which had her at 15 percent in July.

Bachmann’s support collapsed when Rick Perry entered the race just after she won the Iowa straw poll. Perry, rocketing to the top of the pack, then fell apart after bad debate performances and liberal-sounding positions on immigration. Then it was Herman Cain’s turn to lead, but he’s deflating amid a round of allegations of sexual misconduct.

“One thing that I think that we’ve seen are the surprises that have come up so far,” Bachmann said, touting her new website nosurprises2012.com. “Of all the candidates, I’m the one who doesn’t have” surprises.

But she has had a knack for misspeaking and giving false information. Of all the presidential candidates, she’s one of the most likely to make a false statement, according to the fact-checking PolitiFact’s website.

“She needed to stop saying false or stupid things a while ago,” said political consultant Matt Towery, CEO of the Atlanta-based polling firm Insider/Advantage. “But Newt needs to stop saying much of anything. He needs to focus and not be his own worst enemy.”

Towery, who used to work for Gingrich when he was House Speaker, said he was “shocked” by his own and other polls showing Gingrich winning in Florida, Iowa and South Carolina. He said, though, that Gingrich can be his own worst enemy by mouthing off, as he did when he swiped at Bachmann.

Bachmann has insisted that Gingrich supports giving amnesty to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Gingrich says he hasn’t, but believes some should be allowed to stay as residents — not citizens — if they’ve been in the United States for years, raised families, paid taxes and stayed out of trouble.

When asked about Bachmann’s criticisms, Gingrich said she was “factually challenged” and suggested her situation was like an “unfortunate” case from school.