Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney enters Tuesday’s Florida primary a poll favourite seeking to restore himself as the clear front-runner to secure his party’s nomination, but a win for him in the state likely won’t be enough stave off what could be a long and increasingly bitter battle with rival Newt Gingrich.
“With a turnout like this, I’m beginning to feel we might win tomorrow,” Romney told a large crowd Monday afternoon in the western Florida town of Dunedin, just a few blocks away from the spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and successful business executive, is leading Gingrich in several polls in Florida and remains neck-and-neck in national surveys with President Barack Obama.
At the Dunedin event, Romney said his chief Republican rival was “flailing” in a state that has been ravaged by home foreclosures, because of his ties to government-backed housing lender Freddie Mac.
Among the crowd, Paul Doherty, a self-described “anybody but Obama” voter, told CBC News that he’s backing Romney and doesn’t think Gingrich could win in November’s general election.
But Doherty, 59, a retired contractor from Boston who lives in Florida part of the year with his wife Ann, said he wasn’t concerned about Gingrich’s vow to take his fight for the nomination all the way to the Republican National Convention in August, regardless of Tuesday’s result.
“It’s probably a good thing if he stays in,” Doherty said. But many other Republicans fear that a protracted Romney-Gingrich battle could divide the party’s establishment and more conservative grassroots members — and make it easier for Obama to get re-elected, despite anger over the president’s health-care plan and his handling of America’s slow economic recovery.
“It might hurt a little bit in the short term, but in the long run it isn’t going to, because most of the country sees what’s going wrong with this Obama and Obamacare,” Doherty said.
Newt Gingrich, left, faltered in last week’s Republican presidential candidate debate in Florida, just as rival Mitt Romney stepped up his game. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
Gingrich reinvigorated the race with an upset win in South Carolina earlier this month, but saw his momentum coming into the Florida contest blunted by an uncharacteristically shaky debate performance, just as Romney stepped up his own game under the lights.
Last Thursday’s debate coincided with the Romney campaign’s advertising blitz in Florida,which included sharpened attacks on Gingrich’s record as House Speaker in the 1990s and his post-political career.
Romney also ridiculed Gingrich’s pledge to have a U.S. base on the surface of the moon by the end of his second term as president, accusing his rival of pandering to Florida’s struggling Space Coast.
On Monday, Gingrich all but ceded Florida to Romney, but defiantly dismissed his rival’s chances of becoming the nominee.
“He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money,” Gingrich said of Romney in a television interview Monday. “In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate the founder of Romneycare, a liberal Republican who’s pro-abortion, pro gun-control, pro-tax increases.”
‘Florida isn’t going to settle it’
Florida, which defied party rules to move up its primary in the nomination schedule and lost half its 99 delegates as punishment, is not expected to be a “decider” state for Republicans. But a big win Tuesday could solidify Romney’s position as the front-runner and likely nominee heading into a quieter month in the primary calendar.
After Tuesday’s primary, only five per cent of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination will have been awarded to the candidates.
“Florida isn’t going to settle it, but Florida could make it a lot more interesting,” Stephen Craig, a political science professor at the University of Florida, told CBC News.
Craig said he doesn’t believe Romney can deliver a knockout blow to Gingrich in the state, but thinks Gingrich will have a hard time recovering and eventually overtaking Romney with a Florida loss.
And if Gingrich were to win Florida?
“Sit back and watch the fun,” Craig said with a laugh.
Romney, who earlier in the campaign focused his attacks on Obama, changed course after Gingrich’s South Carolina win and went on the offensive against his Republican opponent in person, in campaign ads and through his backers, including party establishment figures like former presidential candidate Bob Dole and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain.
Romney supporters Paul and Ann Doherty say they are going to vote for ‘anybody but Obama’ in November’s presidential elections. (Andrew Davidson/CBC)
With an overwhelming advantage in funds, Romney’s campaign saturated the state with radio and television ads that labelled Gingrich a “failed” leader who left office in disgrace in the late 1990s and later peddled his influence in Washington for profit with contracts to housing lender Freddie Mac.
Gingrich, in turn, targeted his rival as a “liberal” impostor and liar undeserving of the leadership of the party of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, and accused Romney of profiting from selling stock in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, even though Gingrich acknowledged in Thursday’s debate that he also owned stock in the housing lenders.
In the final days of the Florida campaign, Gingrich garnered support from high-profile conservative Republican figures like former presidential candidate Herman Cain and former vice-presidential hopeful and Tea Party favourite Sarah Palin.
Palin stopped short of endorsing Gingrich ,but called for people to vote for him to “shake up” the establishment and prolong the nomination battle “if for no other reason to rage against the machine.”
At Monday’s Dunedin rally, Florida resident and Romney supporter Jim Howes said he has never seen such an acrimonious Republican contest.
Howes, 66, a retired aviation and communications businessman originally from Maryland, told CBC News he thought Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s business record while CEO of investment firm Bain Capital were “beyond the line.’
But Romney would have had to face the same attacks later on from the Democrats as the nominee, Howes added.
“It’s just disappointing to hear a Republican candidate say it, because we’ve always been the party that believes in the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.
Some Republicans have cited the 2008 Democratic nomination contest that saw Obama overcome Hillary Clinton as proof that competition makes a candidate stronger — and wonder whether Gingrich can perform the same role in sharpening Romney as a contender as Clinton did for Obama four years ago.
But others, chief among them Romney’s establishment supporters, fear Gingrich’s continued presence, if not an outright victory, would be a disaster for the party’s chances in congressional races and could put the Republicans’ control of the House of Representatives at risk.
Santorum, Paul move on
The two other Republican candidates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul, largely bypassed Florida to conserve campaign resources for later caucus states where their percentage of support might translate into more delegates.
“Florida’s a media state,” the University of Florida’s Craig said. “You don’t win statewide unless you hit the markets, and that’s why it’s a very expensive state to campaign in, whether it’s for president, governor, senator or whatever.”
Santorum, who was forced to return to his home in Pennsylvania over the weekend to be at the bedside of his three-year-old daughter Bella after she contracted pneumonia, had already moved on to campaign in western caucus states Minnesota and Missouri on Monday.