JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican presidential race in Florida came to a close today after a rough-and-tumble 10 days. It boiled down to a two-man race, and attacks on the stump and a blitzkrieg of broadcast ads raged on to the very end — at stake, a trove of 50 delegates and momentum heading into February.
Republicans predicted a record turnout in Florida, more than two million voters. And Mitt Romney hoped for a decisive victory.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Hello, Ed. It’s Mitt Romney. How are you this morning?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney started his day greeting volunteers and phoning voters from his headquarters in Tampa.
The former Massachusetts governor’s appeal for support won over those like Bill Dunn of Jupiter.
BILL DUNN, Florida voter: But I think there’s been a lot of, you know, bad stuff going on with how they go at their campaigning, but as far as getting our country back on track, I think this guy can handle it, with inside the Beltway and outside in the real world, where you and I are standing right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Other voters also complained about the sharply negative tone of the Florida fight between Romney and Newt Gingrich.
CROWD: We need Mitt! We need Mitt! We need Mitt!
JUDY WOODRUFF: But Romney made clear today he’s not backing down.
MITT ROMNEY: If you’re attacked, I’m not just going to sit back. I’m going to fight back, and fight back hard. He really can’t whine about negative campaigning when he launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina and when the people here in Florida looked at the different campaigns and concluded that his was the most negative.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, in Orlando, Gingrich, the former House speaker, vowed to continue the fight, no matter the outcome in Florida.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): This is a long campaign. And if you watch tonight, the conservatives are clearly going to out-poll Romney. There’s no clear path for Romney to get to a majority.
QUESTION: How close is this to being over, Mr. Speaker?
NEWT GINGRICH: I would say probably six months.
QUESTION: Six months?
NEWT GINGRICH: Yes. I would say June or July, unless Romney drops out earlier.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Just how long it goes on could well depend on Romney’s ability to attract those conservatives now backing Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
I asked him about that in Tampa.
MITT ROMNEY: You know, I would love to understand how it is that Speaker Gingrich characterizes himself as more conservative than me. I have a conservative record as the governor of Massachusetts. And that record is one I’m willing to stand by.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, Santorum insisted today he’s also staying in the race. The former Pennsylvania senator campaigned in Colorado, as did Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Both had evening events in Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Saturday.
GWEN IFILL: Judy, you’ve been all over the state all week long covering this pretty interesting race.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Feels that way.
GWEN IFILL: At the end of the day now, as Mitt Romney gets ready to claim victory or not tonight, did he have a pretty good day?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he did.
I mean, his campaign is feeling very confident. Of course, they don’t say they’re going to win by a big margin. They are — in fact, today, they were toning down expectations, saying it could just be a few points.
But it’s clear they have hammered away at Newt Gingrich from the end of the South Carolina polls or the — once the results were known last weekend, and they have not let up. In fact, one of Romney’s people said to me today, he said, we made the mistake once of letting up on Newt Gingrich, and we’re not going to make that mistake again.
And you did hear him say, Gwen, just a minute ago that he’s going to continue, and they’ll worry later about the consequences. But, yes, they’re feeling confident. And the Gingrich people are worried, but defiant.
GWEN IFILL: I read today, Judy, that there was exactly one positive Romney ad on the air in this last week, and it was a radio Spanish-language ad.
If you were a voter in Florida and you’re watching the debates, but aside from the debates, you’re just watching the ads, what did you know about these two, these — especially these two guys?
JUDY WOODRUFF: You knew that they were both lying, in effect. They didn’t always come out and say that — use that word in the ads, but that was the implication.
You heard about Newt Gingrich, his ethical problems when he served as speaker of the House. You knew that he was on retainer as a consultant to Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant. With regard to Governor Romney, you knew — you heard of him as a Massachusetts moderate or Massachusetts liberal.
So you got a pretty, I should say, distorted picture of the two. You didn’t get a sense of where these candidates stand on the issues, and maybe the voters don’t expect that anymore. But it’s not what they got here in Florida.
GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting to hear Newt Gingrich say just now in that piece that you just did that he plans to be in this for another six months unless Romney drops out.
What’s at stake for Newt Gingrich after a night like tonight? Right now, of course, the polls are still open. We don’t know what the outcome is. But we only know that the polls have shown, which is Mitt Romney doing pretty well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this is going to sound like I’m stating the obvious, but the Gingrich people want that margin to be as small as possible. They do not expect to win.
But they don’t want to be completely embarrassed here in Florida. So that’s why Gingrich, even today, was running negative ads against Romney, doing anything they can to tighten up that margin. They know — I mean, the numbers support Speaker Gingrich, Gwen, in that it does take more than 1,100 delegates to clinch the nomination.
And whoever wins Florida is going to come out of here with just barely 90, so a long way from it all being over. No matter how much we in the media talk about who’s got the momentum, who is likely to be the nominee, the fact is, it is a long road. It is going to be months. If not six months, it’s quite some time away from knowing when this is over.
GWEN IFILL: Ron Paul has been in Maine this week. Rick Santorum has been in Colorado, after a brief respite, visit — visit home with his family. And he was campaigning today, saying — Santorum, that is — saying he’s not going anywhere, that this idea that all the conservatives will gather around Mitt Romney — or Newt Gingrich, that is, is — is the formula.
He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Is that something that anybody is acknowledging, that Rick Santorum is also still in this race?
JUDY WOODRUFF: I think for sure, Gwen, the Romney camp is aware that Sen. Santorum is still a factor. They don’t expect him to overtake them, but they are concerned about conservative, very conservative voters out there.
They want to be on — they were very upset about some of the tough language that Sen. Santorum used in the last debate against Gov. Romney. So that’s clearly a factor.
So, Gwen, as we look at this contest, we know that one name that any Republican would have liked to have had endorse them is Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio. He happened to be in Washington today on Senate business.
But he stayed at a camera just long enough to talk to us just a few minutes ago. And here’s that interview I did with him.
Sen. Rubio, thank you very much for talking with us.
You predicted earlier today that whoever wins the Florida primary is likely to be the Republican Party’s nominee. All the polls show it’s going to be Gov. Romney. So, are you forecasting he’s going to win the nomination?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: Well, I think we should wait until the results come in.
And I certainly wouldn’t underestimate Speaker Gingrich, who has shown the ability in this campaign to come back from some adversity and put on a good campaign in other states. So we will see how that plays out.
But I think my point is that Florida really is a microcosm of America. You know the state well. Literally, every major issue that confronts America that we as Republicans want our nominee to be able to confront, those issues are found in Florida.
And over the last 10 days, you have seen these candidates have to answer questions they didn’t have to answer in some of the earlier states. So, I think, ultimately — I don’t know how long it is going to take — but, ultimately, if you win the Florida primary, especially if you win it decisively, I really think that bodes well not only to win the nomination, but the general election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, today, Gov. Romney said he is going to continue to air negative ads and be very critical of Speaker Gingrich if the speaker is criticizing him.
And all the surveys are showing that the vast majority of the advertising, negative advertising in this state, came out of the Romney camp.
Do you believe that Gov. Romney’s campaign is going to need to tone it down?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, ultimately, I don’t tell people how to run their campaigns.
And I remind everybody that no candidate has run more negative ads in American history than Barack Obama did in 2008, especially in the general. So we’re going to see more of this down the road. But let me just say that I would encourage the candidates, if possible — we always say that, but if possible, to pivot back to their positive message.
I think all four of our candidates have an appealing positive message that could really excite people and get them behind them. And I would hope they would pivot back to that. And I would also say that, ultimately, as Republicans, our goal is to change the direction of our country. And if they’re attacking each other, using the same lines of attack that the president ultimately is going to use against our nominee, I think it’s counterproductive.
So, look, every year, we talk about how we don’t like the negative campaigns. And every year, there’s more of it. But that’s one of the reasons why I hope that this primary at the right time will come to a conclusion, so we can move forward to the campaign and the general election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in just the few days that the presidential candidates have been focusing on Florida, do you believe Florida Republican voters have gotten a fair look, a good look at where these candidates stand?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, I think Florida voters have been looking at them now for about a year. I think the first debates were in the summer of 2010, if I’m not mistaken — or 2011, if I’m not mistaken. So this campaign has been going on for a while.
By the time they made it to Florida, they had a series of debates. They’d been tested in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. But in Florida, they had to answer some specific questions. We saw more talk about immigration reform than we have seen throughout the campaign. We saw discussions about foreign policy like we hadn’t seen before. We saw talk about the Western Hemisphere. Where else do you get that in these early states?
So I think we know a lot more about these candidates because they’ve campaigned in Florida. And we have a better picture now of who they are and what they would do if they got the nomination and ultimately the presidency.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of immigration, you were critical a few days ago of ads that the speaker, Speaker Gingrich, was running here in Florida accusing Gov. Romney of being anti-immigrant.
But when you look at Gov. Romney’s position, taking a much harder line on illegal immigrants, couldn’t that at least be interpreted as viewing people who come to this country from elsewhere as unwelcome?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, I think it’s — and again I don’t want to get involved here as a surrogate for one campaign or the other.
But let me say this. Both candidates have offered — all four of our candidates have offered a strong defense of legal immigration. Those are immigrants too. And people all across the world that are waiting to enter this country legally that have done it the right way, I get them in my office. They come and see us. They tell us that their relatives have applied and they’re waiting to come in.
Some have been waiting as long as six, seven, eight years. They’re in favor of legal immigration. But here’s the other thing I would say. I think most Americans now agree that the illegal immigration problem we have is serious and that the legal immigration process we have is broken. And it needs to be reformed.
Just because people disagree about how to reform it and how to deal with it does not make someone anti-immigrant. And I think that’s a very strong charge to be made. And that’s why I was discouraged to see it in an ad. And that’s something I expect from the left, that unfairly throws that around.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, conversely, Gov. Romney has called Speaker Gingrich’s position on immigration — at one point, he called it amnesty, when what Speaker Gingrich is talking about, he said, if a family has been here 25 years and they have been good citizens and they have paid their taxes, there ought to be sort of a path to citizenship.
Is that a fair characterization?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, again, I don’t want to become a surrogate here back and forth or a referee in this race.
I think Speaker Gingrich has offered a thoughtful idea on immigration. I’m not completely familiar with everything he’s offered, but I’m encouraged that we’re moving forward in conversation, in talking about that.
Look, we have a legal immigration process in America that’s broken. And it has to be modernized. It has to be. I think there’s a consensus in this country that something should be done to help young kids that were brought here at a very young age and are now very high academic achievers and want to contribute to America’s future or who want to go out and serve in the military.
Now, the difficult issue is, what do you do with 11 million people that are here without documents? And that one is difficult to confront for a lot of different reasons. It’s not an easy issue. And I think it’s something we’re going to have to continue to have a conversation about in America, because my hope is that immigration will once again become something that unifies as a people, not a source of conflict that divides us, the way it has now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Senator, as you know very well, your name has been touted time and again as a potential, likely even, choice to be the vice presidential running mate for whoever wins the Republican presidential nomination.
You have consistently said you’re not interested in doing that, you want to stay in the Senate. So, are you saying the position of vice president isn’t important?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: No, it is an important position.
What I have said is that I’m focused on my work here in the United States Senate. That’s where I think I can best serve the people of Florida. I don’t believe I’m going to be offered that position. I don’t believe I’m going to — I’m not going to be the vice presidential nominee.
I understand people have to speculate about somebody. Now, when they move on to other states, they will probably speculate about other people. Ultimately, though, what I am committed to doing is helping our nominee. With all due respect to the president, who I think is a fine father and a fine husband, but I don’t think he does a very good job as president. And the proof is in the economic results he’s gotten.
We need to change direction in November. And I want to do anything I can to help the nominee. I just don’t think it’s going to as the vice presidential nominee.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Marco Rubio, thanks very much.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Thank you.