Four years ago, Florida voters helped put an end to Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes. Now, it looks like they’re ready to help place him back into position as the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.
If polls in recent days offer an accurate forecast, Romney should win Tuesday’s Florida primary handily, perhaps by a double-digit margin over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Early exit polls had Romney up by 13 percentage points.
Precincts will close across much of Florida at 7 p.m. ET. Western parts of the Panhandle will continue voting until 8 p.m. ET.
After suffering a serious setback in South Carolina, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has kept strongly on offense against Gingrich for more than a week, pummeling him with personal attacks and an ad campaign that has been estimated at five times the size of what Gingrich could muster.
The other two major Republican hopefuls, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have more or less bypassed Florida in order to position themselves in other states set to vote in February.
But the coming month is filled with contests in states that look favorable for Romney, either because of their demographics or their support for his candidacy in 2008. A sizable advantage in Florida will add momentum to his advantages in terms of money and organizational strength.
“A big win in Florida for Romney would have a potentially profound effect on the nomination,” says John Hancock, a Republican political consultant in Missouri who worked for Romney four years ago but is neutral in this year’s race.
Arguing Over Few Issues
At times, the debates that seemed to matter most in Florida — perhaps fittingly for a state with a highly mobile population — were arguments about where people would live.
Gingrich sought to question Romney about his tough stance on illegal immigration, an issue with relevance in the first state where Hispanics make up a sizable share of the GOP electorate.
Gingrich also sought to appeal to voters on Florida’s Space Coast with his almost literally outlandish idea of a colony on the moon.
Romney managed to rebuff Gingrich on both counts, picking up endorsements from key officials of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent.
“The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not on my mind,” Romney said at a Jacksonville campaign event on Monday.
Gingrich has kept up his attempts to characterize Romney as too moderate to secure the GOP nomination. But he was never able to regain momentum following his poorly received performances in a pair of Florida debates last week.
Putting Gingrich On The Ropes
The tide seemed to turn strongly in Romney’s favor thanks mainly to his personal attacks against Gingrich. After seeking to remain above the fray through much of the primary season, aiming most of his criticism toward President Obama rather than his Republican rivals, Romney went directly after Gingrich through ads, robocalls and his own public statements.
According to one analysis, as many as 90 percent of the ads aired in Florida were negative in nature, NPR’s Melissa Block says on All Things Considered. Gingrich complained that Romney had been “relentlessly negative” and “blatantly dishonest.”
It wasn’t just the attacks on Gingrich that were effective, but their sequencing, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
Romney was able to raise questions about Gingrich’s status as a Washington “influence peddler,” then unleashed a devastating ad showing vintage footage of NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw recounting the House vote in 1997 to reprimand Gingrich on ethics charges.
“There is one glaring Achilles’ heel in Gingrich that has strongly been pointed out,” says Pete Dunbar, a longtime Republican strategist and campaign consultant in Florida who is not working for any of the presidential candidates.
“When you look back at the personal behavior and the ethics sanction that was imposed on him by his own body, that has had a major impact,” Dunbar says.
What Florida May Portend
Given his superior resources, Romney was able to step up his Florida ad buys following his loss in South Carolina on Jan. 21. He also had both his own team and local support from county GOP officials and others ready to help guide voters through the early and absentee voting processes.
“Romney had the organization in place to be able to track absentee requests and then have someone follow up,” says MacManus. “You can’t do that at the last moment. You have to have the money and the expertise, and Gingrich didn’t have either of those.”
Florida marks a break in several important respects from earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It’s not just, by far, the largest state to vote this year.
Florida is also the first state to allow only registered Republican voters to participate in its nominating contest. It’s also the first “winner-take-all” state, allocating all of its delegates to the national GOP convention to the statewide primary winner (although that decision may well be challenged further on down the road).
Assuming he wins, Romney will hope the big boost he’ll receive will be indicative of his chances as the contest spreads to other states.
Speaking in Tampa on Tuesday, Romney vowed to sustain his newfound level of intense engagement with Gingrich and his other opponents.
“If we’re successful here, it will be pretty clear that when attacked, you have to respond,” Romney said. “And you can’t let charges go unanswered.”