Mitt Romney limped into Florida trying to reclaim his status as the Republican front-runner, with the state’s electorate and expensive media markets offering a possible firewall against Newt Gingrich’s surging candidacy.
Still, the first major event of the primary race leading up to the Jan. 31 vote will be a debate tonight, a forum where the former House speaker has excelled.
Florida is an exemplar of a troubled national economy, ranking seventh in the U.S. in the rate of foreclosure filings per household and with unemployment at 9.9 percent. Romney’s focus on jobs and growth may be a better fit here, with fewer voters emphasizing issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
“This is a state where fiscal conservatism is much stronger than social conservatism,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
With 18.8 million residents -- 6 percent of the total U.S. population -- Florida also reflects the nation more than the three states that preceded it on the nominating calendar. Its population grew 17.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, fueled by immigrants, transplants and retirees.
“It’s a place that gives you a good indication of where the country is at,” said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami. “It also tends to be a very moderate state in Republican politics. That could be a good thing for Romney.”
Florida Hard Hit
The presence of so many retirees -- 17.3 percent of the population is 65 or older, compared with a national average of 13 percent -- means that Medicare and Social Security are likely to be folded into the campaign discussion more often than they were in the earlier-voting states. That conversation will center on two Florida debates, including the one tonight in Tampa.
Florida, holding the fourth of the nominating contests, is a central battleground for White House hopefuls.
President Barack Obama, who won the state by 2.8 percentage points in 2008, displayed his continued interest in Florida last week by visiting Walt Disney World to pitch the U.S. tourist industry before the Republican candidate arrivals.
The Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index shows a state in decline since Obama took office, when compared with the health of other states’ economies. The data shows Florida’s economic health fell 12.4 percent from the first quarter of 2009, when Obama took office, to the third quarter of last year, including a 22.5 percent decline in home prices.
Republicans consider Florida and its 29 electoral votes -- more than one-tenth of the total needed to elect a president -- so crucial that they will host their national convention in Tampa in August.
The state could generate a second victory for someone in the primaries -- after Gingrich’s win in South Carolina, Romney’s in New Hampshire and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s in Iowa’s caucuses.
Interviewed near the convention arena, Sam Quiros, 42, said he “doesn’t understand” why Romney lagged in South Carolina, although it hasn’t shaken his plans to vote for him.
“His strong experience from the private sector is a lot more appealing,” said Quiros, a project manager for a document-management company who was spending a weekend afternoon docked aboard his “Lady Q” powerboat. “I like Newt a lot, but I don’t think he would rally enough people in a general election.”
Republican leaders were angered last year when Florida decided to defy national party rules and moved its primary to Jan. 31, an action that prompted Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to move their elections forward to protect their early status. The decision cost Florida half its convention delegates, leaving it with 50, the prize for the state’s winner-takes-all primary.
Four years ago, Romney finished second with 31 percent in the Florida primary, five percentage points behind U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who essentially clinched the nomination in the state. Just 39 percent of those voters told exit pollsters that they considered themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians. In Iowa and South Carolina, those numbers were 57 percent and 65 percent.
As helpful as money and organization are, momentum also is critical. Romney spent more than twice as much as McCain in Florida, yet McCain’s first-place win in South Carolina 10 days earlier helped him look like a winner to Florida voters.
Big Media Market
During the past three weeks, Romney’s campaign and its allies have spent millions of dollars on radio, television and direct-mail in a state that is one of the costliest because of its size and 11 media markets. Gingrich has yet to start television advertising in Florida.
Romney’s advertising, in English and Spanish, was designed to influence early voting in the state. About 200,000 people already have cast early and absentee ballots during a time when Romney still appeared to have the momentum.
Through Sept. 30, the most recent date for which Federal Election Commission reports are available, Romney had raised more than $32.2 million, compared with $2.9 million for Gingrich.
Romney was running twice as well as Gingrich and Santorum in a CNN/Time/ORC International poll of likely Republican voters in Florida taken Jan. 13-17, with Romney supported by 43 percent, Santorum at 19 percent and Gingrich at 18 percent. That was before Gingrich won South Carolina, a prize claimed by every Republican nominated for president since 1980.
Giving into pressure from Gingrich and others, Romney has agreed to release his 2010 tax return and his estimates for his 2011 return tomorrow. “We just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did,” Romney, a multimillionaire former private-equity executive, said yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.”
Romney has called on Gingrich to release his consulting contracts with Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage lending institution for which the former House speaker says he provided strategic advice. The two contracts paid Gingrich at least $1.6 million.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas has said he doesn’t expect to spend much time campaigning in Florida because he wants to focus on smaller states like Nevada, Maine and Minnesota that don’t require as much money.
‘Go for Broke’
MacManus said she expects the rest of the candidates and political action committees will spend virtually everything they have on the state, a windfall for local stations.
“No candidate or PAC is going to sit idly by,” she said. “They are all going to go for broke, and the TV stations are salivating at the possibility.”
Through Jan. 19, Romney’s campaign already had spent $2.4 million on television ads in the state, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. A political action committee that backs him, Restore Our Future, had spent another $2.4 million, all of it negative in tone against other candidates, according to CMAG. Romney’s campaign ads have run most frequently in the Orlando and Tampa markets, the data shows, reflecting central Florida’s importance.
Almost half the state’s 4 million registered Republicans -- 45 percent -- live in the Orlando and Tampa media markets, according to MacManus’ research. Known to locals as the I-4 corridor -- for the interstate highway that runs from Tampa to Daytona Beach -- the area is identified by its citrus groves, retirement communities and tourism.
Romney is working to secure the endorsements of Republican leaders in Florida, although he can’t expect the formal backing of former Governor Jeb Bush. In a Bloomberg News interview this weekend, Bush said he plans to “stay neutral” and warned the candidates to leave the “circular firing squad” of their debates behind and appeal to a broader audience of voters.
Bush isn’t the only one on the sidelines. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Miami, elected with the support of Tea Party Republicans who favor smaller government, has been silent. So has Governor Rick Scott, a first-termer whose own popularity has slid in opinion polls since his 2010 election.
Doug Johnson, 59, a retired tomato farmer from Brooksville, said he hasn’t decided whom to support.
“It will help if things get narrowed down,” Johnson said outside a Tiffany & Co. store at an upscale mall in Tampa. “My top concern is that whoever we pick can win in November.”
Johnson said he thinks that either Romney or Gingrich could win. One thing he’s not including in his decision-making is allegations that Gingrich asked his second wife for an “open marriage” during the 1990s while having an affair with the woman who became his third wife. Gingrich has denied this.
“I’ve got an ex-wife who won’t stay in the same building as me,” he said. “I take it with a grain of salt.”