GOP campaign turns to Florida — a very different challenge

Rick Santorum campaigns Sunday in Coral Springs, Fla.
Rick Santorum campaigns Sunday in Coral Springs, Fla. AP Photo/Steve Mitchell

ORLANDO — The tumultuous Republican presidential campaign unfolds over the next 10 days in Florida, the most diverse, complicated and expensive state yet.

Campaigning in Florida is more akin to stumping in several states at once - with 10 media markets, several of them pricey, and a land mass so large there's little opportunity for retail politicking - unlike Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Indeed, nearly 2 million Republicans voted in Florida's 2008 presidential primary (which shared the ballot with a hotly contested property tax initiative) - twice as many as have voted in the first three states to hold contests this year.

"Florida is unlike anything that comes before it," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which surveys in Florida. "They're up for a whole new game.

"Money matters a lot more than in any of the earlier states because you can't knock on enough doors and spend enough time in living rooms," he said. "This is a mega-state, commercials are expensive and the only way to communicate."

Early advantage would seem to be Mitt Romney's: He's been working the state as a firewall, leads in the polls and is ahead on the ground and the airwaves in a state that tends to emphasize pocketbook issues over social ones.

But with conservatives restless and TV debates playing an outsize role in this year's contest - there will be two in the state this week - observers suggest a rising Newt Gingrich could take a bit more air out of Romney's sails.

Florida Republicans are conservative if mainstream, pollsters say. Though Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans in voter registration, the state has been governed by a Republican since 1998, the state legislature is heavily Republican and just one Democrat holds statewide office.

But evangelical voters are a smaller presence than in Iowa and South Carolina, and an economy hit hard by the economic downturn is the priority.

"It's been Jeb Bush conservative, not Jim DeMint conservative,' said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "It's been right of center, but not way right."

It's also had a history of going with the establishment choice - John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush and his father before him.

But David Johnson, a former Republican Party of Florida executive director, notes this will be first time Florida primary voters will be voting for such an unsettled field. Florida's primary has traditionally been later in the calendar, but state GOP leaders moved up the date in 2008 in a bid to make the state more relevant.

Tea party groups - who in 2010 helped elect Rick Scott as governor - suggest they're still restless.

"There's an undercurrent that's not been measured or calculated that feels an urgent need to make Barack Obama a one-term president," said Marcos Sendon, who runs the South Florida Conservative website. He's not yet settled on a candidate and he's worried Romney hasn't pushed back forcefully enough on his financial success.

"I'd be saying, 'God bless America, I did it and so can you," Sendon said. "Not this tip-toe through the tulips. I'm not convinced he has the temperament for the fight."

Gov. Scott, who has some of the lowest job-approval ratings in the nation, told the Bradenton Herald last week that he'd stay neutral. And two other Florida Republicans who would be giant "gets" say they're staying on the sidelines: Reports suggest that Romney had expected to come into Florida with the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - who remains hugely popular among Republicans. A spokesman for Bush, however, said he planned to stay neutral.

The other sought-after heavyweight -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio - who also was elected in 2010 with tea party support - says he won't weigh in either.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed Sen. John McCain late in the primary in 2008, giving his campaign a considerable boost.

Romney and a super PAC working on his behalf already have spent more than $2 million in Florida on ads and targeted mailers - including in Spanish targeting Miami's Cuban-American community.

"The people I've talked to, they've obviously been micro-targeted," Johnson said, noting that tailoring the standard stump speech to meet the audience is a challenge in Florida where each region has its own issues.

There's active and retired military in Florida's Panhandle, the space industry dominates along the central East Coast, and Midwestern retirees have flocked to sprawling Central Florida retirement communities.

Johnson said he expects Romney to do well in traditional Republican strongholds like Jacksonville - one of the state's business centers, where Romney performed well in 2008.

There'll also be a battle for South Florida's reliably Republican Cuban-American voters - who reward candidates for taking tough stances on Fidel Castro. Romney has the backing of Cuban-American Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, though all three support the Dream Act granting privileges to children of illegal immigrants, and Romney does not.

Gingrich, too has campaigned for Cuban-American favor, and Friday will attend Bush's Hispanic Leadership Network. His state director is Jose Mallea, who ran Rubio's 2010 campaign.

Observers expect the contest to be decided in the towns and cities along Interstate 4, the highway that dissects the state in half from Tampa to Orlando. Early voting's already started and already more than 170,000 absentee ballots have been returned - a figure that analysts say should give Romney a boost.

More than 30 percent of the vote in the GOP primary comes out of northeast Central Florida - in fast-growing exurbs around Orlando north to Daytona Beach -- and the Romney campaign made its first stop in the state there Sunday.

Though Florida has a diverse population, Coker noted that the primary vote in Florida trends older and white. The black vote in the general election will be about 12 percent, he said. In the primary, it's unlikely to be more than 1 percent.

But that's not true of Hispanics. The general election vote is about 12 percent Hispanic - in the primary its 14 percent, and most of them appear to be older Cuban Americans.

"An 80-year-old Cuban is going to vote 90 percent of the time, a 25 year old might show up for the general," Coker said.

Romney is also expected to fare well in areas of Florida populated by Mid-western and other retirees. And he's got support from the business community in well-heeled areas like Palm Beach, said Sid Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County GOP chair.

"Palm Beach has a lot of corporate professionals and retirees and they're quite comfortable with Romney's resume," said Dinerstein, whose Lincoln Day dinner three days before the primary will feature Newt Gingrich.

"The issues are conservatism and electability," said Dinerstein, who is not taking sides. "If you're in Palm Beach or you're in Pinellas (County), everyone is looking for the best combo of those two concepts. And some of them are still looking."


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