It’s Mitt. Now what?

Key factors and hard feelings on the road to Romney’s Florida win.

click to enlarge MOVE THAT BUS! The Mitt brigade rolled into Dunedin for a big rally the day before the primary. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
MOVE THAT BUS! The Mitt brigade rolled into Dunedin for a big rally the day before the primary.

Mitt Romney’s 14 percentage point victory over Newt Gingrich on Tuesday night has reestablished the “Massachusetts Moderate” (Gingrich’s derisive term for the formerly moderate governor of Massachusetts) as the front-runner in the race to be the GOP presidential nominee.

In his victory speech inside the Tampa Convention Center, Romney referenced his GOP opponents only once, pivoting toward what he hopes will be a one-on-one battle against Barack Obama. He drew one of his biggest cheers of the night when he quoted Thomas Paine: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Pausing, he said, “Mr. President. You were elected to lead — you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!”

But Newt Gingrich, and perhaps Rick Santorum, still stand between him and a return ticket to Tampa for the convention in late August. And if Gingrich’s sugar daddy, Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, continues to pump money into the former House Speaker’s super PAC, the animosity between the two Republicans might pave the way for Barack Obama to improve his chances next fall.

Devoid of serious policy disagreements, the race between Romney and Gingrich degenerated almost exclusively into exchanges about character defects. The negative ads on TV and radio were unavoidable, and they were mostly one-way.

According to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, the Romney camp and its supporters had aired 13,000 ads on Florida television as of January 25 — compared with just 200 ads from Gingrich and his super PAC, Winning Our Future. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul aired no ads.

Pinellas County Republican state committeeman Tony DiMatteo says the push for the front–loaded primary meant the fix was in for Romney. “You want names? Come on, you know who they are,” he snarled to CL on the eve of the election.

“We could have had a March 3 primary,” DiMatteo said. “We could have had the candidates campaigning in our state for another month, spending money, meeting people, building up the message in the most important swing state in the U.S.“

Instead, he lamented, they’re gone now, except for attending the occasional fundraiser.

Less than two weeks ago, the Mitt Romney inevitability meme was jolted by the big Gingrich win in South Carolina. That’s when the Romney camp went nuclear, beginning with a news conference at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk hotel. Romney called his opponent “erratic” and demanded that he release his “work product” for the $30,000 a month Gingrich earned while working for mortgage lender Freddie Mac.

Those headline-inducing comments followed an hour-long roundtable discussion between Romney and eight local citizens in the Tampa Bay area adversely affected by the housing and foreclosure crises.

Whether or not he was just in it for the photo-op, hosting the roundtable made sense for Romney. Home values across the state have tanked nearly 50 percent since the heady days of 2005-2006, creating a foreclosure crisis in Florida arguably worse than in any part of the nation.

Among the participants in the roundtable was Tampa real estate attorney Todd Marks. A supporter of the former Massachusetts governor, he’d been contacted the night before by the Romney campaign.

Romney took a more populist tone than he has previously about the housing problems, saying it was “tragic” to hear their hardship stories. He said that there was plenty of blame to go around for the situation, but that banks had to be part of the solution by allowing people to refinance at lower levels. Marks said afterwards he was impressed with the candidate’s ability to listen and get a sense of the problems because “it’s a complex issue.”

Hours later at River Church in Tampa at the site of Hillsborough GOP headquarters, Gingrich and wife Calista entered to the strains of the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” Gingrich pilloried Romney’s negative comments about Freddie Mac as “desperate baloney.” Citing his previous claim that it was “pious baloney,” the 68-year-old joked that his opponent should be going into the delicatessen business.

In prime Republican country, vendors sold buttons mocking the liberal media, always a prime target for Republicans. Gingrich’s grassroots support has thrilled to his condescending denunciations of the media, in particular when he virtually tore the face off CNN’s John King during the Myrtle Beach debate when King asked about comments by Gingrich’s former wife Marianne that he wanted an “open marriage.”

Candy Boatwright from Valrico said her ardor for the native Georgian increased after that interchange. “I don’t think that’s going to be something he’s going to continue to do in the White House as far as open marriage,” she told CL before a Gingrich appearance in Hillsborough County. “I don’t think so. I think he’s learned.”

Enmity toward the media was also expressed Tuesday morning in St. Pete’s Tick-Tock Restaurant, where Gingrich spoke. Robert Knupp from Gulfport said there’s only one channel for him for his TV news, and that’s Fox. “Forget the rest of them! I don’t know who you’re with,” he told CL, “but my TV could stay stuck where you couldn’t change the channel.”

His wife Libby praised Gingrich for getting out of his last marriage, saying he should be admired for “getting out of a situation he was not comfortable in.”

Andrea Robins from Largo called the open marriage story “nonsense. That’s a bitter divorce,” adding that she didn’t know Marianne Gingrich’s issue, but “I didn’t fall for it.” Robins and her husband Al were too late to grab a seat to hear Gingrich speak at the diner, so they stood for over an hour to see and hear their candidate.

“I think he’s honest, simple, humble, straight-forward and intelligent,” she said.

But these were conversations with the rock-solid base of Newt lovers. Among the rest of the female electorate in Florida, the reviews weren’t nearly so favorable. Exit polls after Tuesday’s election showed a devastating gender gap in Romney’s favor; he beat Gingrich by a 52-28 percent margin among women voters.

The other two candidates in the race had a much lower presence in the state. Rick Santorum canceled a major event in Sarasota on Sunday to tend to his 3-year-old daughter’s illness. (He was back on the campaign stump Monday in Missouri.)

Save for the debate performances in Tampa and J-Ville, Ron Paul was AWOL in the Sunshine State. Paul blew off the state once the RNC declared that Florida’s 50 delegates (reduced from 99 as a penalty for moving the primary date to January) would be “winner-take-all,” meaning that a second-place finish would result in zero delegates. Paul was never going to win the state outright, and since his strategy is to gain as many delegates as possible in order to be a major presence at the convention, the strategy made sense.

But there’s also a bit of intrigue with that. A state committeeman from Osceola County, Mark Cross, has filed a challenge with the RNC, saying the committee has violated its own rules by not requiring that the state’s delegates be apportioned in a proportional matter. If the challenge were to be upheld, Paul could win a few delegates out the 50 allotted Tuesday night.

The knock-down, drag-out primary battle left some local GOP consultants in Tampa with ambivalent feelings. Some, like Mark Proctor, said the fight was healthy, comparing Romney-Gingrich to Obama-Hillary in 2008.

But another Tampa-based GOP strategist, April Schiff, disagrees.

Schiff says the 19 debates have given the voters an opportunity to know the candidates, but they’ve also given the Democrats a slew of ammunition to use against the eventual nominee.

Although the chances of a brokered convention in Tampa are virtually nil, it’s still somewhat stunning that this late in the process, respected conservative thinkers still float the idea, so disenchanted are they with their batch of contenders. After watching the USF debate, Weekly Standard and Fox News analyst William Kristol wrote about the possibility of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ possible entrance, noting that he didn’t work for Freddie Mac nor pay as little as 15 percent in his tax returns. (Romney, we learned last week, paid 13.9 percent over two years when he made more than $40 million.)

Democratic National Committee Vice Chair R.T. Rybak says Kristol’s comment reveals that the GOP candidates aren’t connecting with the public. Like DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the party establishment, they have never taken their eyes off Romney as the probable candidate, holding a multitude of press conferences and conference calls throughout last week to denounce the former governor on a myriad of topics.

Rybak says, “The thing with Romney is, if you go to a dance and everybody on your side of the room collapses, and this woman across the room finally comes over and says, ‘I guess I’ll dance with you, because you’re the only one left,’ it doesn’t make you Casanova, right? And Romney may be standing at the end, but I think badly damaged. I also feel in the last few weeks we’ve seen this very clear contrast, between the president who’s very focused on middle-class issues and Romney, who clearly has been exposed as a person who is just out for trickle-down economics.”

The race for the Florida GOP primary is over, but, as Newt Gingrich’s sign said Tuesday night, there are still 46 states to go, and 95 percent of the delegates to the Tampa convention have yet to be allocated. And then the bigger battle over who will win Florida in November will begin in earnest.

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