MARGARET WARNER: The Republican presidential contest got rougher today, with the two front-runners holding little back, as they battled to win Tuesday’s primary.
After days of taking heavy fire from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich launched a furious counterattack today at this Tea Party rally in Mount Dora.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): We’re not going to beat Barack Obama with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs while it forecloses on Florida, and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while he tries to think the rest of us are too stupid to put the dots together to understand what this is all about.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MARGARET WARNER: But campaigning in Jacksonville, Romney said again that former House Speaker Gingrich brings all the baggage of a Washington insider.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Now, if you think that you really need someone who has been part of the culture of Washington for the last 35 years to go there again and continue in Washington, why, there are other people you can choose.
But if you want someone who has actually run a business, run two businesses, helped run an Olympics and helped run a state, who hasn’t lived in Washington, but is intent on changing Washington and making it work for the American people, then I’m the person to vote for on Tuesday.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MARGARET WARNER: The sharpened tone reflected the tight race.
A CNN-TIME magazine poll on Wednesday found Romney with a narrow lead, 36 to 34 percent. That was within the margin of error. Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum seems to be running a distant third.
In Tallahassee, he urged voters to consider temperament and character.
RICK SANTORUM (R): Not just what they say they’re for, because a lot of folks go, oh, I’m for this and this and this, and then you find out how disappointed you are, because you don’t know what’s here, you don’t know what’s up here.
MARGARET WARNER: Texas Congressman Ron Paul was largely skipping the Florida contest. But he planned to join his rivals tonight in Jacksonville for their final debate ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
And joining us now from Jacksonville is our own Judy Woodruff.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Hi, Margaret, from Jacksonville, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: So you have been there a couple of days now. What’s the dynamic? Is it as nasty as it sounds?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know, I was just thinking, Margaret, this is a state of over 11 million people, and it’s a state that’s used to being in the political — national political spotlight. So I’m confident there’s a huge swathe of Floridians who are not paying much attention to this campaign.
But the folks who are, the Republicans, the independents, no doubt, and even the Democrats in this state, because they know what happens in Florida will have bearing on what happens in the general election, they are paying attention. To this date, Margaret, there’ve already been over 400,000 early ballots mailed in.
I think that’s close to the number total of Republicans who voted in the South Carolina primary. So voters are paying attention. And as you just heard from the candidates, it’s getting hot. Newt Gingrich rolled into Florida with a head of steam, having won in South Carolina, and expecting to take advantage of that.
But the Romney camp has been forewarned, and they came into Florida ready to spend big bucks to get the message out that they’re not going to be walked over. So you’re seeing not just this kind of language on the stump. You’re seeing television ads and a lot of money put into television in 10 expensive media markets across Florida to get their points across.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this a new tone, personal tone, from Romney, and how do his people explain it?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what they say is that, you know, this is a do-or-die state. And those are my words, but, for them, they cannot lose Florida.
This is the biggest state to vote so far. It’s a swing state. Republicans feel they need to win this state in the general election. Mitt Romney wants to win the state of Florida, especially coming off that embarrassing loss in South Carolina. So, hence, today, he was actually careful. He didn’t call Newt Gingrich out by name today.
But I will tell you, the e-mails rolling out almost hourly from the Romney campaign, I wrote some of them down, they talk about Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde, what they call the two sides of Newt Gingrich.
Not one, but two former Republican presidential nominees have now gone out as surrogates. It was John McCain on the campaign trail standing in for Mitt Romney. Today, Bob Dole put out a statement saying that Newt Gingrich was somebody who liked to go it alone, whose attitude was, my way or the highway.
So they — and they’re rolling out members of Congress. It’s as if they have rolled out all the heavy ammunition because they don’t believe they can afford to lose this state. It’s not to say Mitt Romney wouldn’t go on. He certainly would. He’s got the money, the staying power. He’s made it very clear this is going to be a long slog to the nomination, which they are still confident they will eventually get. But they sure would like to put it away — to put away Florida.
MARGARET WARNER: Judy, you made the point about how much bigger Florida is, of course, than South Carolina or any of the other states where there have been contests.
How else is it different in this sort of Republican universe? How’s the electorate different? And from the events you have gone to, what do the voters seem to care about most?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in terms of difference, 400,000 Republicans, give or take, voted in South Carolina. There’ll be something like two million or more Republicans who will vote. This is what’s called a closed primary. Only Republicans can vote here, two million of them — 10 percent or more are Hispanic, and that’s of Cuban background, Puerto Rican background and many other Latin American nationalities.
They reflect a broad swathe of an economy, from rural to suburban, to urban. They run the gamut from South Florida, many Republicans who’ve come down here from the North to retire, to the middle of Florida, the very famous I-4 Corridor, Orlando to Tampa, the suburbs, to North Florida, the more socially conservative Republicans who live in the Panhandle.
So it’s diverse in a number of ways. And what are we hearing from the voters? What they’re saying is — well, it depends on which voters you talk to. At the Gingrich event, they tend to be more passionate, more enthusiastic. We were at a Gingrich event in Cocoa Beach last night, the so-called Space Coast, where a lot of people have lost their jobs in the NASA cutbacks.
Gingrich played right into their hands, talked about by the end of his second term in office there will be a colony on the moon, and it will be an American colony. So their reaction to Newt Gingrich is, he’s our guy, he will take the fight to President Obama, we want Obama out of office.
This morning, I was at a Romney event, a more sedate, if you will, polite crowd, not as energetic as the Gingrich crowd, but still pretty determined. Many of them seem to come from a business background. They look at Newt Gingrich and they say, he’s too volatile. I had one woman tell us — she said: He’s too undisciplined. I like Romney because he’s got business experience. He can get the country back on track.
MARGARET WARNER: So, briefly, before we go and you get on to the debate, what will people be looking for from tonight’s debate?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, these candidates, both of them know they need to do very well tonight yet again.
This is, I believe, the 19th debate we have seen among these Republican candidates. There will be four on stage. Rick Santorum is still competing here in Florida. It’s a tough state for him. He will be there. Ron Paul will be there, although he’s not truly campaigning in Florida.
You will see a more active audience involvement than what we saw earlier this week. CNN has already said they’re going to be calling on Republicans in the audience to ask questions. They are going to be taking questions from the social media, from Twitter and Facebook.
I think you can look for a livelier atmosphere tonight than what we saw on Monday night. And that may give an advantage to Newt Gingrich, but we also know that Mitt Romney’s on guard. So we will see. Everybody paying any kind of attention to this contest will be watching tonight.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thanks, Judy. And look forward to your reports. And have a good time tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you. See you tomorrow.