In Florida, big crowds for Gingrich, but Romney strategy puts him ahead

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2012 

ORLANDO, Fla. — Looks can be deceiving in Florida's feisty Republican presidential primary.

Mitt Romney has been drawing small crowds all week. The insurgent Newt Gingrich has hosted big, boisterous rallies. Yet the former Massachusetts governor has pulled far ahead of the former House Speaker in statewide polls.

The preference for campaign venues makes sense to analysts — and the campaigns.

"Romney has a good organization and he's building off of it," said Peter Brown, the Orlando-based assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Gingrich is the outsider candidate and he's challenging the establishment."

Romney — who has had a campaign presence in Florida for months and a money advantage that has him blistering away at Gingrich in TV ads — can host small, even intimate gatherings, confident that those there either have been invited or are diehard supporters who will spread the word back to friends and neighbors.

Gingrich, on the other hand, lacking Romney's disciplined organization, has to show energy and momentum to convince voters that there's a bandwagon worth jumping on. It also plays off his strategy as positioning himself as the spirited outsider in the race. And Gingrich feeds off large crowds restless with the direction of the country: Witness his performance in the spirited South Carolina debate that gave him an edge heading into Florida.

Historically, strategies like Gingrich's work only in smaller states — one reason he won the tinier Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.

But in states like Florida, where an estimated 2 million people will cast ballots in Tuesday's primary, organization matters. Indeed, the Romney campaign was micro-targeting Florida Republicans with mailers weeks ago when they began to get their absentee ballots, and thousands voted before the candidates crossed the state line.

Romney has opened up an 11 percentage point lead in the latest Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll, taken Tuesday through Thursday. As his numbers have sunk, Gingrich's rallies may have begun to reflect it. A Saturday gathering at an Orlando Hispanic community center drew 60 people — and left 420 empty seats.

But Gingrich drew more than 1,000 Sunday to the Villages, a sprawling retirement complex in Central Florida. The crowd sat under the trees, waiting in long lines for $3 hot dogs and listening to the Still Kickin' Bluegrass Band. If the numbers at many Gingrich events are large, however, they're not all supporters. Some are the curious or, like retiree Ken Boehm, not yet sure.

"I'm very positive about Newt," Boehm said. "But I haven't decided yet."

Recent polls suggest there's a significant gender gap between the thrice-married Gingrich and Romney. But many women said they like Gingrich's spunk.

At a tea party rally last week in bucolic Mount Dora, attendees began arriving more than 90 minutes before the scheduled start. Gingrich dispensed with niceties, ripping into Romney and the Republican establishment to the delight of the anti-Washington crowd, which chanted the tea party slogan "Taxed Enough Already" as it waited for Gingrich to take the stage.

"Romney's too milquetoast for me," said Patti Wood, 66, of Eustis, a "Newt-er Obama 2012" button pinned to her "Patriot Army" T-shirt. "Newt is just a much stronger personality.

But Jack McCarter, 76, said his support for Gingrich has opened up a rift with his wife, Sandy. The Mount Dora retiree arrived at Gingrich's event early and brought a book to keep entertained.

"I'm for Gingrich, no question in my mind about it," McCarter said. "He's the best debater to take on Barack Obama, hands down."

But McCarter said his wife rejected his invite to listen to Gingrich for herself.

"She's concerned about his wives. I say that's the past. I'm interested in the future," he said.

Gingrich's campaign says Romney would have larger big crowds — if he had the support.

"There's a massive enthusiasm gap," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. "His crowd looks like it could fit into a phone booth. Ours are turning out in the thousands."

At the Villages, Gingrich asked the crowd, almost all senior citizens, to support him — not just by voting.

"I want to ask your help on Facebook, on Twitter, emails or telephone, even seeing people face to face the old fashioned way. I think if we can get the message out we can have a very, very powerful Tuesday," he said.

Romney is expected to hold his own rally at the same retirement community on Monday.

Romney strategists say they want to create the impression they're listening closely to voters. He has held daily rallies at factories, where people listen to him explain why he'd be best to heal the ailing economy.

"We're trying to address specific concerns and be more relevant to the voters," said chief strategist Stuart Stevens.

That's why Romney recently spoke to groups already committed to voting for him at a Tampa drywall company and an Orlando metal fabrication company.

He read from a piece of paper with notes he'd taken on President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, looking past his GOP rivals to take on the White House directly.

"Did he fix the economy? No," Romney said of Obama. "Did he tackle the housing crisis? No. Did he get Americans back to work? No. He spent $787 billion on a stimulus plan that didn't work."

Seeing and hearing this first hand is designed to reinforce the faithful's desire to campaign for Romney, who at the debates this week more forcefully pushed back at Gingrich.

"He's strong and he knows how to run things," explained Beth Schnur, a Tampa homemaker. "He's personally, absolutely a conservative," added Dixie Eklund, a Palm Harbor sales executive.

But Romney, too, has his curiosity seekers.

Brian Salisbury, a university professor from Lake Mary, said one reason he came to a Romney event in Orlando was: "If he becomes president, it'd be good to say I was here."

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