It's Newt's momentum vs. Mitt's organization in Florida GOP fight

Tampa Bay TimesJanuary 22, 2012 

TAMPA — Three states. Three winners. A divided delegate count. If there is any clarity in the unpredictable, captivating turns of the Republican presidential race, it is this: Anything can happen and Florida, which is next to vote, is wide open.

Newt Gingrich will drop into to Tampa on Monday afternoon for a grassroots rally with all the energy and media glare from his overwhelming win in South Carolina. That night, also in Tampa, he and his rivals will appear in another nationally televised debate, a forum he used masterfully to win over Palmetto State voters.

"Whether it's a ball game or a political race, momentum counts. And Gingrich has it," said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is not affiliated with a candidate.

Gingrich's resurrection comes as the GOP field has narrowed, allowing him to round up conservative voters eager to settle on a candidate other than Mitt Romney, whom Gingrich has pounded relentlessly as a "moderate."

Then again, Gingrich could squander it all, as he has before in the lead position. With nine days before primary day here on Jan. 31, his surge will be met with negative ads and heightened media scrutiny.

Romney plans to press his organizational advantages in a state that only a couple weeks ago appeared to be the place where he could wrap up the nomination. "I am confident our organization and our early advertising here will more than compensate for that momentum boost," said Brett Doster, a top Romney strategist in the state.

Romney, who stumbled over questions about his wealth and taxes last week, wants to refocus his campaign on the economy. He has a roundtable discussion on housing issues in Tampa at 8 a.m. Monday.

His allies in the state were already working to sow doubts about Gingrich as a drag on the GOP ticket.

"There are potential down-ballot implications with a candidate like Gingrich, who is so well defined with Republicans and Democrats, someone who has such a big gender-gap problem, someone who reminds everybody of the 1990s — and not necessarily in a flattering way," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Romney supporter.

The focus shifted to Florida on Sunday morning TV talk shows. Romney announced on Fox News that he would release his 2010 tax return returns and an estimate of his 2011 return on Tuesday, and said his previous reluctance to release them was a "mistake."

He's trying to defuse a controversy that dogged him throughout South Carolina.

"We'll put them on the website and you can go through the pages," Romney said Sunday. "I think we just made a mistake holding off as long as we did. If it was a distraction, we want to get back to the real issues in the campaign."

Romney's income in recent years has come largely from investments and he said he pays taxes at close to a 15 percent rate. The top rate on ordinary earned income is 35 percent.

Romney also questioned Gingrich's record and whether he was too volatile. "He's not as reliable a conservative leader as some people might imagine."

Gingrich, who appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," shook off such criticism.

"The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination," he said. "We are going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. We are going to demand real change in Washington."

And then there was Rick Santorum, who came in third in South Carolina but was the first candidate to campaign in Florida on Sunday. Santorum criticized Gingrich as too erratic, and Romney as not conservative enough.

"Florida can now step back and say, 'Okay, who do we want? Who is the candidate that we should, here in Florida, put our stamp of approval on?'" Santorum said to supporters in Cape Coral.

At the moment, it appears to be a race between Gingrich and Romney, a struggle between momentum and organization.

Romney still has the advantage.

He is well-known to Florida voters, having come in second to John McCain in the 2008 primary, and has visited the state often since then. And he has the backing of some of the state's most influential Republicans.

While Gingrich is just getting started here, Romney's Florida volunteers began knocking on doors in September. The Romney campaign and its allies have been on TV for weeks, spending $7 million so far, including $4 million attacking Gingrich.

Romney's team was worried last week when Gingrich went on Spanish-language radio with an ad attacking Romney as "the most anti-immigrant candidate." But the ad buy was relatively small, highlighting Gingrich's financial disadvantage.

Gingrich during his victory speech Saturday seemed to underscore his weaknesses by asking anyone in the crowd to reach out to people in Florida. But Gingrich campaign officials in the state said his ground game is more solid than it appears. There are chairs in all 67 counties and 5,000 volunteers on the ground.

"I'd rather them underestimate our abilities. But we're working hard. We're targeting these voters," said Florida state director Jose Mallea. He said phone banking has targeted absentee and early voters, which Romney has aggressively courted.

As many as 200,000 people are estimated to have cast ballots already. Still, that is only about 10 percent of the overall number of voters who turned out in the 2008 primary.

Gingrich has also seen donations pour in since Saturday night, announcing midday Sunday that he had exceeded a $1 million goal for a "knockout punch in Florida." The campaign expects to be advertising on TV early this week.

Gingrich, Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul, who is bypassing Florida to focus on other states, will appear Monday night in a debate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100.

While early on Romney benefitted from steady performances, the field has narrowed and Gingrich's anti-media, populist anger has been to his advantage. A second debate comes Thursday in Jacksonville.

"Any time you turn Newt loose he is capable of either coming out like he did in South Carolina, or screwing up so bad he can't ever get it back," said Tom Slade, former head of the Republican Party of Florida. "I've never looked forward to a time in politics as exciting as this is now, and it's all about Newt."

(Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Miami Herald reporter Clark Spencer contributed to this report, which includes information from McClatchy Newspapers.

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