Romney Machine Takes on Gingrich Revolution in Florida Primary
The morning of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 24, Mitt Romney arrived on schedule clad in a blue suit. He stood behind a lectern framed by an overhead sign that read “Obama Isn’t Working” and delivered what aides billed as a “prebuttal” to the speech.
About 15 miles away in St. Petersburg, Florida, Newt Gingrich’s day was also starting out like most others in the campaign. He arrived almost 30 minutes late to the dingy Tick Tock restaurant, stood before the overflowing crowd and went on the attack. “I discovered that Romney has a new debate coach,” he told cheering supporters. “His specialty is to say as many untrue things as fast you can.”
Policy differences aren’t likely to determine who wins the Republican presidential nomination. All the candidates are promising to cut spending, lower taxes and crack down on illegal immigration.
While there are marginal disagreements on issues, the two Republican front-runners couldn’t be more different in their style, temperament and background. Those are the measures that are likely to move voters, who now are about evenly divided, on Jan. 31, Florida’s primary day.
Romney, 64, is the son of a governor; Gingrich’s stepfather served 27 years in the U.S. Army. Romney, co-founder of Bain Capital LLC, speaks with boardroom diplomacy; Gingrich, 68, thrives on rhetorical combat. Romney spent most of his professional life in the private sector; Gingrich built his career in politics.
Republican voters overwhelmingly see Romney as more electable in the race against Obama. Yet Gingrich, they say, is the one would really take the fight to the president, according to a recent poll conducted by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University.
“Sometimes I think you should vote your conviction, but on the other hand you want someone who’s electable,” said Cheryl Moureaux, a retired teacher, as she waited for Gingrich to speak in Columbia, South Carolina, last week. “So that’s sort of the decision, Mitt or Newt.”
On the trail, Romney campaigns as if he’s applying for a job.
The former Massachusetts governor describes a country in economic and global decline, exasperated by a president unable to put it back on the right track. He paints himself as a thoughtful, serious leader able to turn around the economy and restore American leadership in the world.
Choosing a President
“We’re not choosing a talk-show host,” Romney told hundreds of voters gathered for an evening rally in Ormond Beach, Florida, on Jan. 22. “We’re choosing the person who should be the leader of the free world.”
At his events, Gingrich preaches as though he’s leading a revolution.
A former college history teacher, he casts his argument in the grand terms of political theory, frequently portraying Obama as a “Saul Alinsky radical,” a reference to a long-deceased Chicago community organizer.
“I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose,” Gingrich said in Cocoa, Florida. “The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.”
Struggling With Details
While Gingrich focuses on the big picture, his campaign struggles with the details.
He frequently runs at least a half an hour late to his events, leaving supporters listening to a loop of his country music-infused campaign soundtrack. When a supporter walked to the microphone to announce that Gingrich had finally arrived at a Fort Myers, Florida, event, a man in the crowd shouted out: “That’s what you told us an hour ago.”
His senior aides must try to manage a schedule and a boss who can’t help but answer every question -- down to his favorite candy. It’s gummy bears, reporters who followed him on a visit to the world’s longest candy counter in Littleton, New Hampshire, learned.
Gingrich’s freewheeling style means the campaign message can veer off course in a period of hours. On Jan. 25, he opened the day by attacking Romney’s immigration policy in a pitch to Florida Hispanics. At the end of the day, he was pledging to establish the first permanent base on the moon during a stop on the Space Coast.
That offbeat idea opened him up to attacks during a CNN- hosted debate last night in Jacksonville, when his rivals questioned the cost of such a proposal.
“If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, `You’re fired',” said Romney.
By contrast, Romney’s tight-lipped team keeps things running on time and on message. The campaign provides reporters with minute-by-minute plans for each day, complete with the weather forecast for the cities they will be visiting.
On Jan. 24, Romney’s campaign told reporters the candidate would arrive at 2:50 p.m., in Lehigh Acres, Florida, after a two-hour-and-sixteen-minute drive from Tampa. The campaign bus arrived at 2:48 p.m.
Aides with earpieces bustle around events -- be they in a shuttered paper factory or a parking lot rally -- corralling staff, reporters and voters.
When Romney faced an irate union representative after a speech to business leaders in Nashua, New Hampshire, staff members blasted music making it impossible for the conversation to continue as aides hustled Romney through the crowd and out a back entrance.
Nowhere is that discipline more pronounced than in dealings with the press.
Romney’s team keeps a close circle around the candidate that almost never allows for questions outside controlled press conferences. Even the most benign inquiries are often avoided: In Lexington, South Carolina, a reporter who asked Romney whether he would try a hush puppy during a visit to Hudson’s Smokehouse was quickly cut off by aides.
A week later in Florida, Romney briefly came back to the press section of the airplane on a Jan. 25 flight from Orlando to Miami, to banter in a friendly manner.
“Not a word, not a word,” he said, as the reporters started asking questions about immigration policy. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, before heading back to the front of the plane.
Attacks are precisely aimed and reinforced by daily conference calls with Romney surrogates, who are even dispatched to Gingrich events to spread the message.
Florida Congressman Connie Mack yesterday introduced Romney at a campaign event in Jacksonville. Two hours later, he showed up at a Gingrich rally a few miles away where he criticized the former House speaker for his work with Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage-finance company that many Republicans blame for helping cause the housing crisis.
“I keep wanting to hear him answering the question about Freddie Mac,” Mack told reporters. “I’m doing my part to see if he can answer the question.”
The Romney campaign is especially guarded when managing the release of potentially harmful information.
As the campaign prepared to disclose his tax returns, reporters were told to expect details at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of Obama’s State of the Union address, which aides calculated would bury their news.
On the evening before the Jan. 24 release, information about the returns was leaked to selected news organizations, including Bloomberg News, with an embargo against publishing until midnight.
The following morning, the manager of Romney’s blind trust, his campaign lawyer, policy director, and a former Internal Revenue Service commissioner were all dispatched to brief the press on a conference call.
Gingrich’s release of his tax returns on Jan. 19 was more like dropping a bomb. R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, posted a tweet in the middle of a Republican debate, announcing that the forms were available online, “in case you were wondering.”
The two camps even celebrate differently.
At Romney’s victory party in New Hampshire, supporters -- including some of the campaign’s biggest fundraisers from across the country -- waited in the cafeteria of South New Hampshire University until they were allowed to file into a ballroom upstairs.
Romney took the stage shortly after his competitors gave their concession speeches. After his remarks, enthusiastic backers shook hands and mingled as they made their way out of the room.
After scoring a 12-point victory in South Carolina, Gingrich’s supporters -- sweaty in the overcrowded and overheated room in the Columbia Hilton Hotel -- lined up for liquor from a cash bar as they awaited the candidate, and a DJ blasted club remixes of 1990s’ pop songs.
Almost an hour after network newscasts declared his victory, Gingrich officials appeared on stage to introduce the winner, concluding their remarks with “ladies and gentlemen, Newt Gingrich.”
He was nowhere to be found. Aides cranked up the campaign soundtrack, playing the opening verses of Toby Keith’s “American Ride” again and again as the crowd waited. Finally, after almost 20 minutes, Gingrich took the stage to declare his victory.
When asked why the delay, an aide simply shrugged.
“It’s Newt,” he mouthed.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com