TAMPA, Fla.—Three days after a bruising defeat in South Carolina, Mitt Romney delivered a “prebuttal” to President Obama’s State of the Union address in a defunct drywall plant. The venue was meant to symbolize the administration’s empty economic promises, but the echo of Romney’s voice inside the vast, vacant warehouse instead seemed to reflect his sapped momentum heading into Tuesday’s GOP primary. The supportive but less-than-exuberant audience of about 150 people also looked ominously puny next to the thousands of people who flocked to rallies for rival Newt Gingrich on the same day in Sarasota and Naples.
If Gingrich can keep his hot streak going through Tuesday’s vote—a big if, considering the former House speaker’s frequent lack of discipline—he could burn through Romney’s Florida firewall, built with a multimillion-dollar television sweep and a superior ground game. Television dominates in a state this big, but in a presidential race, free media exposure dilutes the weight of paid ads. The latest polls indicate a tight race. “There is an intensity surge for Gingrich, and you can’t underestimate the difference that will make on Election Day,” said a neutral Republican pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who worked on Gov. Rick Scott’s winning campaign in 2010.
A Gingrich triumph would look like a replay of the GOP’s 2008 Florida primary, in which John McCain rode a wave from his South Carolina victory to overtake Romney’s more robust campaign on the air and the ground in Florida. “Momentum can trump organization,” said Arlene DiBenigno, who led McCain’s campaign in the state. “We didn’t have the structure or money or staff that Romney had, but we got it done.” In 2012, as in 2008, only 10 days separate the two contests, leaving the runners-up from South Carolina little time to rebound.
What Gingrich shares with the senator from Arizona—along with subsequent winners of statewide Republican races in Florida, such as Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio—is the image of insurgency. Sure, the former House speaker is as much a member of the party establishment as Scott (a rich corporate executive) and Rubio (a former leader of the Florida House and a prodigy of former Gov. Jeb Bush). But they all branded their opponents as cozy insiders, playing to a tea party-steeped electorate. “Clearly the more populist wing of the party in Florida is speaking at a higher decibel,” said Al Cardenas, a former state Republican Party chairman who now heads the American Conservative Union.
Recent statewide races show that the GOP electorate is veering rightward and venting outrage. Scott, a leading opponent of Obama’s health care law, faced off in the 2010 primary against Bill McCollum, the state attorney general, whose long career in Congress had made him as comfortable in Republican circles as an old sofa. Scott also used a hard-line stance against illegal immigration as a battle cry that resonated in Florida’s conservative enclaves.
Rubio, a young Cuban-American from Miami, channeled the energy of the burgeoning tea party movement to swipe the Senate nomination in 2010 from the once-popular Gov. Charlie Crist. The governor’s early endorsement by the national Republican Party turned into an albatross in an election year when the political establishment became the leading public enemy.
Gingrich has similarly positioned himself as the outsider through a series of scrappy debate performances, his history as a revolutionary House member from Georgia who led the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and his characterization of Romney as a corporate elitist. (See “Return of the Revolutionary.”)
But Romney’s hard-hitting media blitz tarring Gingrich as a Washington insider who “cashed in” with mortgage lender Freddie Mac “while Florida families lost everything” could slow the former speaker’s surge. Moreover, Gingrich has a long history of proving more successful at storming the barricades than at ruling the castle. Signs of potential trouble started to emerge on Wednesday, when he was forced to back away from a radio ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant” and from a line of attack linking Romney to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Two surveys released late Wednesday showed Romney up by 8 percentage points, raising questions about whether Gingrich’s support was ebbing. The fallout from Thursday’s debate and the final weekend on the campaign trail will determine whether Florida blows up Romney’s once-inevitable path to the nomination or puts him back on track.
WHAT FLORIDA WANTS
Until Obama rewrote the playbook winning Florida in the 2008 general election, the GOP’s well-funded, well-oiled political machine dominated recent statewide races. The party tapped influential money bundlers, targeted voters who requested absentee ballots, and mobilized its troops on Election Day. Organization and money mattered, evidenced by the expert campaigns waged by Jeb Bush for governor and George W. Bush for president.
Romney has followed this model, banking tens of thousands of absentee votes long before Gingrich made his comeback in South Carolina. The former Massachusetts governor also touts endorsements from some of the most prominent Republicans in the state, including all three members of the governor’s Cabinet. (Scott hasn’t endorsed anyone.) Between Romney’s campaign and a super PAC bankrolled by his allies, he could outspend Gingrich by more than 2-to-1.
Romney has essentially been campaigning in Florida for five years. “We’ve done all the blocking and tackling, and we’ve done it for a long time,” said campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez, adding, “Gingrich has tried to create a campaign overnight.” What’s more, Gingrich won’t have the advantage of a last-minute, high-profile endorsement to put him over the top, like McCain did in 2008. In exit polls that year, 42 percent of GOP voters said that Crist’s support influenced their pick. McCain won that race by 5 percentage points, essentially locking down the nomination.
But what Gingrich has and Romney lacks can’t be bought or bartered: a visceral connection with angry audiences. Voters admire the well-coiffed businessman, but he doesn’t make them scream. “Florida likes an insurgent, and Romney can’t close that sale because he has perfect hair and beautiful teeth,” said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who hasn’t taken sides in the primary. “He doesn’t look like a scrappy outsider.… Gingrich knows how to turn people on.”
Romney can’t even adeptly deliver the throwaway applause lines that, for many politicians, are as easy as tossing candy to children. “It’s good to be in the Sunshine State,” Romney declared in the Tampa warehouse on Tuesday, pausing to signal that that it was time for the crowd to clap. “Maybe he’s a little too reserved,” said 37-year-old Danny Lazaro, who owns a meat market in Tampa. Lazaro voted for Romney in 2008 and probably will again, but he worries whether Romney can energize voters enough to beat Obama.
Even those who know they’ll vote for the former governor recognize his limitations. Paul Ferreri, a retired accountant casually dressed in Bermuda shorts and loafers, grinned when talking about the bombastic Georgian, even though he’ll vote for Romney: “I love Newt Gingrich to death,” he said. “But, right now, we need to beat Obama.… We live in an age where sound judgment needs to prevail. A shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy like Newt is not the right person to lead our country.”
Those sympathies reflect broad changes in the state’s political landscape. What traditionally works in Florida—in both style and substance—may be changing, and Tuesday’s primary could indicate just how significant the changes are.
Florida Republicans have traditionally been moderate, voting for genteel fiscal hawks such as former Sen. Connie Mack, who retired in 2001. Consider that Jeb Bush ran for governor in 1994 as a hard-edged conservative who chastised then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, for not executing more people. Bush lost. He tried again and won in 1998 with a more centrist message, promising to be the “education governor” (although he went on to govern as a conservative).
Since helping McCain clinch the nomination in 2008, the state’s GOP has mirrored the rightward march of the national party. Rubio’s tea party campaign savaged Crist’s conservative credentials by emphasizing his support for Obama’s economic-stimulus plan and his flip-flops on issues like abortion. Scott also won with an antiestablishment message (and $70 million of his own money). “It’s the angriest Republican electorate I’ve seen in a long time,” said party strategist David Johnson, who advised the mild-mannered Jon Huntsman in Florida before Huntsman left the race.
It’s unclear, however, how long this furious political climate will last or whether it imbues presidential races as well as statewide ones. “People are electing a president, and, on that count, Gingrich may have a shorter shelf life,” Johnson said. “I think there’s still room in Florida for a reasonable candidate who isn’t yelling a message but articulating a vision.” He pointed out that, as an absentee voter, he has received eight pieces of mail from the Romney campaign or allied groups and just one from Gingrich. “The weight of Romney’s message could make a difference in a close race,” he said.
HOW IT’S PLAYING OUT
Here’s a surprise: Romney narrowly won the non-Hispanic white vote in Florida’s 2008 primary, according to exit polls. He lost the race in the Hispanic community, where McCain got 54 percent of the vote; Romney received just 14 percent. Perhaps acknowledging this disadvantage, he recently followed Gingrich’s lead and softened his opposition to the Dream Act, which would grant citizenship to children brought illegally to the U.S. if they enroll in college or the military. Both candidates said they might support the legislation if it was limited to military service.
Most of the Hispanic Republicans in this state live in Miami-Dade, the county where Romney and Gingrich have traded some of their sharpest attacks. Nearly three out of four Republicans there are Hispanic, and campaigns are frequently won or lost on Spanish-language radio. Talk shows on local, national, and international politics provoke heated rhetoric in the Cuban-American exile community, fueled by café con leche and hatred for the repressive Castro regime. “I’ve never seen the Hispanic vote this close in an election, and whoever gets the lion’s share of that vote is going to win on Tuesday,” said Cardenas, who lives in Miami and backed Romney in 2008.
Against this backdrop, Gingrich had been running a radio ad accusing Romney of being “anti-immigrant.” The spot cited a 2007 speech in Miami in which Romney borrowed a trademark line of Fidel Castro’s, drawing outrage from some Cuban-Americans. Gingrich agreed on Wednesday to edit out the attack after Rubio, a likely vice presidential short-lister who hasn’t officially taken sides, defended Romney in an interview with The Miami Herald. Nevertheless, the Romney campaign fired back with an equally harsh radio spot that accused Gingrich of backing Obama’s liberalized travel policy to Cuba. The ad also repeats Gingrich’s 2007 description of Spanish as a “ghetto” language.
In an interview in November, Gingrich did support Obama’s decision to allow unlimited travel to Cuba for Americans with family on the island. But the Romney ad doesn’t mention that Gingrich reversed himself two weeks ago in Miami, saying he would reinstate the limits in place under President Bush to try to squeeze the Communist regime. Gingrich has previously apologized for his “ghetto” remark and has courted Latino voters more aggressively than any other candidate in the race.
Rubio also rebuked Gingrich this week for comparing Romney to Crist, the governor Rubio savaged as a flip-flopping phony conservative in the 2010 campaign. Gingrich and his allies have repeatedly noted that several Romney staffers worked for Crist (an attack that probably resonates more with political insiders than with voters). Gingrich drifted even further from his core anti-Obama message this week in suggesting that the United States would have a permanent moon base by the end of his second term.
Lack of focus may signal that Gingrich is losing his footing (again)—and that the race is way too volatile to call. If he pulls out a win on Tuesday, he will snuff out Romney’s remaining glow of inevitability. Ahead loom contests in Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan that would seem to favor Romney, pointing to a protracted struggle for the nomination. Fabrizio, the Republican pollster, warned, “Anyone who thinks this race is in the bag is dead wrong.”
This article appears in the January 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.