As the Florida primary draws to an end, Mitt Romney is showcasing his support from some of the biggest names in the Republican party, highlighting a friendly statement from 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole and campaigning side-by-side with 2008 nominee John McCain.
Newt Gingrich, his chief Republican rival, is also making a big deal out of those endorsements -- to argue that he is the true outsider in the race and appeal to the anti-establishment Tea Party voters who upset congressional primaries in the last cycle.
Gingrich, in an interview on his campaign plane, described Dole, a former Senate majority leader, and McCain, an Arizona senator, as “the guys who lost” and said they “probably aren’t the guys Romney should have trotted out. It’s allowed me to say ‘we tried a moderate in ‘96 and lost. We tried a moderate in ‘08 and we lost,’” he said.
“They certainly say to every Tea Party person: Now we know who he is,” added Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, in a reference to Romney.
Endorsements are a campaign tactic intended to validate a candidate’s credentials and tap into the political bases of those who’ve endorsed him, which can produce new fundraisers and manpower.
The rallying around Romney’s candidacy last week was picked up by such Republican-leaning websites as the Drudge Report. That, plus more than $10 million in pro-Romney advertising on broadcast networks, has created a sense of momentum for him and against Gingrich in the days leading to the Jan. 31 primary.
Yet in a Republican Party split between loyalists and anti-establishment activists, it’s an open question whether those endorsements will help the former Massachusetts governor.
In South Carolina, Romney enveloped his candidacy in the embrace of sitting Republican governors, including the state’s Governor Nikki Haley; Gingrich’s campaign was revived by strong debate performances and a call from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a prime voice for the party’s anti-Washington wing, to back him and extend the primary. Gingrich won the Palmetto State’s Jan. 21 contest by 12 percentage points.
In Florida, the former speaker is trying to recreate that dynamic and interviews with voters suggest some are open to the argument, although it may be not be a large enough bloc to stall Romney’s momentum before its Jan. 31 primary. A poll released yesterday by the Miami Herald gave Romney an 11-point lead, with 42 percent support among Florida Republicans compared to 31 percent for Gingrich.
“I really haven’t been all that impressed with those guys,” Joe Deen, 55, said yesterday at a Cocoa Beach, Florida event for Gingrich. “McCain especially. I’ve often felt like he was barely conservative to start with.”
Across Florida this week, Republican voters echoed similar sentiments about the former party nominee who lost the general election to President Barack Obama.
“I voted for McCain because he was the best on the ticket but I did not want him,” said Andrea Kidd, 47, after hearing Gingrich speak in Orlando. “He kowtowed on conservative principles. We don’t want that again.”
McCain isn’t the only surrogate whose support for Romney is raising red flags among activists.
Earlier this week, Dole, the former Kansas senator who lost the 1996 general election to then-President Bill Clinton, called Gingrich “a one-man-band who rarely took advice” and whose ideas were mostly “off the wall.”
Dole Criticizes Gingrich
“If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices,” Dole wrote.
Erick Erickson, a Republican columnist, challenged that critique in a Jan. 26 post on redstate.com. Dole, wrote Erickson, gave in to Democrats during the 1995 government shut-down, undermining Gingrich’s demands.
“We’re supposed to hate Newt Gingrich because Bob Dole caved to the Democrats 24 hours before they were going to cave to Gingrich?” he wrote. “Pffffft.”
Over the weekend, Gingrich picked up the endorsement of Herman Cain, an Atlanta businessman and former presidential candidate. Texas Governor Rick Perry also backed Gingrich when he withdrew from the race before the South Carolina primary.
Sipping white wine on his campaign airplane, Gingrich said Cain’s endorsement is “a big deal” because “it sends a signal of populism. It brings you a bump in the news cycle. It has, I think, a really good signal about the insurgents versus the establishment.”
Fighting Washington Elite
At campaign rallies, the former Georgia congressman casts himself as an ideological warrior fighting the Washington elite.
“The prospect of Gingrich actually becoming president for the old guard is horrifying,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Jan. 27. “They’re all comfortable. They’re all set in their ways. They’re all part of an establishment.”
Still, his long record in Washington and consulting work after resigning from the House in 1999 leave some anti-spending conservatives unconvinced.
“There’s absolutely no way for Gingrich to identify himself outside of Washington D.C.,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.
Florida political consultants say Gingrich has his own ties to the state’s establishment. For co-chairman of his state campaign operation, Gingrich picked Bill McCollum, a former Florida attorney general who lost a 2010 gubernatorial Republican primary bid to Governor Rick Scott, who was backed by Tea Party activists.
Gingrich Establishment Ties
“Gingrich is running around talking about the elites and the establishment but two years ago his campaign chairman was at very top of that list,” said David Johnson, former executive director of Florida’s Republican Party.
Romney has worked hard to point out those aspects of Gingrich’s record. This week, his campaign sent surrogates to travel from one Gingrich event to another countering the former speaker’s message and explaining why they believe Romney would be a stronger candidate against Obama next fall.
R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, confronted one of those backers, U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz at a Jan. 27 event in Delray, Florida, noting that some Republican officials have criticized those tactics. The Utah congressman defended his presence at the event, saying Gingrich vowed to send his supporters to counter Obama events if the two were to face off in a general election.
On Jan. 28 in Port St. Lucie, Gingrich was asked about Romney backers attending his events.
“Does the term ‘desperation’ come to mind?” Gingrich said.
Hammond then turned to Chaffetz: “One thing is clear: The establishment sticks together.”