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Gingrich, Romney Battle in Winner-Take-All Florida

January 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Combining TV attacks on rival Newt Gingrich and smooth debate performances, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has regained his footing in Florida public opinion polls ahead of Tuesday's primary. Judy Woodruff reports from the Sunshine State where many Republicans have already voted early.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next Tuesday’s Florida Republican primary looks to be a two-man race, with the latest batch of polls showing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leading former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Judy Woodruff has our report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was not even a week ago when the former speaker of the House rolled into Florida, pumped up from a double-digit win in South Carolina, and the media coverage that flows with having upset the presumptive front-runner.

It made Newt Gingrich confident enough to make big promises, an American colony on the moon, a half-dozen space launches a day, if he’s elected.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): I was attacked the other night for being grandiose. I just want you to know, Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright brothers going down to Kitty Hawk was grandiose. John F. Kennedy standing there saying we’ll get to the moon in eight years was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

If you want to change people's opinion or you want to really push their buttons, you have to use television, and that's why we're inundated right now. It's the season when we say the mute buttons get worn thin.Susan MacManus, University of South Florida

JUDY WOODRUFF: The overflow crowd that showed up to see him in Cocoa Beach Wednesday liked what they heard.

THAD ALTMAN, R-Fla., state senator: I mean, he truly is sort of a once-in-a-generational type of leader. He has the ability to articulate issues in a very refined way, and he’s a visionary.

CLYDE THODEY, Florida: There’s only one man on that whole stage at the present time that can take Barack Obama on one on one. His compassion and really the history in which he brings within his speech, it is incredible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidate Gingrich trounced in South Carolina kept up his game face, but landed in Florida loaded for bear and spoiling for a fight.

Mitt Romney, in his first negative TV ad of this campaign, used Gingrich’s command of history against him.

NARRATOR: Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis.

NEWT GINGRICH: And I offered advice, and my advice as a historian.

NARRATOR: A historian? Really?

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was just one of millions of dollars worth of television spots unloaded on Gingrich, most by the so-called Super PACs supporting Romney, and a barrage of attacks from prominent Republicans.

NEWT GINGRICH: What you have right now is the entire Republican establishment in panic mode, running around saying whatever comes into their mind next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In this state, with 10 separate metropolitan areas, or media markets, advertising to reach the two million Republicans expected to turn out in next Tuesday’s primary is not cheap.

But for Romney’s camp, coming off a humiliating loss in South Carolina, it’s a necessity, says Susan MacManus, University of South Florida professor of politics and media.

SUSAN MACMANUS, University of South Florida: It’s still, ultimately, if you want to change people’s opinion or you want to really push their buttons, you have to use television, and that’s why we’re inundated right now. It’s the season when we say the mute buttons get worn thin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The tactic seems to be working for Romney. Combining TV attacks on Gingrich with smooth, confident debate performances have helped the former Massachusetts governor regain his footing in Florida public opinion polls.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I will not apologize for having been successful. I did not inherit what my wife and I have, nor did she. What we have — what — what I was able to build, I built the old-fashioned way, by earning it, by working hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney’s belated decision to release his most recent tax returns, embrace the fact of his enormous wealth, and say he has nothing to apologize for appeals to many Florida Republican voters we talked to.

CLAUDIA DRESSER, Florida: He’s a self-made man. He already said in one of the debates he did not get the money from his parents or anyone else. And he has been very successful. Don’t we want that for the country?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, the rise of negativity has turned some Florida voters off.

LEE ANN BUTLER, Florida: Romney’s the one doing the smear-campaigning, which, by the way, was part of what really got me behind Newt in a stronger way than I would have been. And that’s why I’m working for him and I’m hoping that he gets through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For all the talk of personalities, given the 9.9 percent unemployment rate in Florida and the housing crisis here, the topic on most every voter’s lips we spoke with was unmistakable. Even though most said the economy is picking up, these Republicans say they want change.

For Craig Beggins of Century 21, an Apollo Beach realtor, it’s come down to Romney vs. Gingrich to address his main headache.

CRAIG BEGGINS, Century 21: As a broker dealing with home purchases, where 80 percent of our sales involve financing, it’s brutal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the Hardin Construction company in Tampa, we met up with senior vice president Page McKee, who was still undecided.

PAGE MCKEE, Hardin Construction: We would like to see leadership both at the executive level and in Congress. In business, we need to know what the rules are. We need to have some feeling that there’s some security or that the playing field’s going to be level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A similar tune at Wright’s Gourmet Cafe in Tampa from owner Jeff Mount.

JEFF MOUNT, Wright’s Gourmet Cafe: You know, for myself, I’m looking for somebody that understands economics and the challenges we face and making good decisions.

And I put tremendous value on that, as well as somebody that’s had experience in the executive side. And so, for a guy like me, Mitt Romney’s a good fit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as the University of South Florida’s Susan MacManus reminded us, Florida Republicans are divided, just like the country as a whole.

SUSAN MACMANUS: Some are very working-class, and you have all the way up to the extremely wealthy. It’s a little bit of everything, racial diversity, religious diversity, ideological diversity and candidate diversity, as we see. It’s not an easy place to campaign in. It’s very complex. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, even within the ranks of the Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was to this giant jigsaw puzzle that the candidates brought their final statewide appeal in last night’s debate. Romney jumped at every chance he was given to hammer at Gingrich for inconsistency and for what Romney labeled pandering.

MITT ROMNEY: Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that’s what got us into the trouble we’re in now. We’ve got to say no to this kind of spending.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gingrich, who had seemed to feed off the audience in last week’s debates in South Carolina, watched his main rival do the same last night. It was as if the week of nonstop criticism from the Romney camp was taking a toll.

NEWT GINGRICH: The governor has cheerfully attacking me inaccurately and he knows it. The contracts we released from Freddie Mac said I would do no consulting, wrote in, no — I mean no lobbying, none.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the other two candidates, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who have seemed out of the center ring, worked their way back in, at least for the moment.

RICK SANTORUM (R): The bigger issue here is, these two gentlemen, who are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty personal politics.

Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies — and that’s not the worst thing in the world — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because worked hard and he’s going out and working hard?

And you guys should that alone and focus on the issues.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there at times.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The winner of this primary will collect 50 convention delegates in this winner-take-all contest.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Judy joins us live now from Jacksonville.

Well, Judy, today, three of the four candidates, I gather, were spending much of their time trying to woo Hispanic voters. Tell us about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They were, Jeff.

The Hispanic vote makes up about 10 or 11 percent of the Republican electorate in Florida. And you’re right. Three of the candidates, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, were all — they flew from Jacksonville down to Miami, where, for Romney and Gingrich, they gathered before a group called the Hispanic Leadership Network.

This is a group founded by Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor, of course, former brother of the former President George W. Bush. He established this group. They were all set to endorse Newt Gingrich, something that they did, but they went on and they heard a speech from Mitt Romney.

And what we’ve been told, because there was a NewsHour team there reporting on this meeting, a lot of the people there said they were so impressed by Mitt Romney, by what he had to say, that they’ve now switched their decision and they’re going to vote for Romney.

Needless to say, Newt Gingrich did come away with their endorsement. He is running heavily ads, radio ads in the Hispanic community in South Florida. Mitt Romney today picked up the endorsement of a large number of Hispanic leaders in Florida. Excuse me, Jeff. He also picked up the endorsement of the governor of Puerto Rico.

Meantime, I have to mention Rick Santorum. He spoke before a group, the Latin Builders Association, and he received their endorsement. So, yes, all the candidates — all three of the candidates — you heard me mention that Ron Paul is not in the state today or tomorrow. But — but the Hispanic vote, it doesn’t vote as a bloc, but these are voters who these Republicans want on their side, and they’re out going out for that vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one thing we should reiterate, because it’s still interesting, given all — even as we talk about the to-ing and fro-ing in the final days here, many voters have already voted. You have some new information on the early voting?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I sure do. I’m going to look at this number I was just given. The latest reporting shows that 188,000 early ballots have already been sent in, mailed in.

And this is out of an expected two million or so Republicans who are expected to participate in this Republican primary next Tuesday. Now, Jeff, in addition to that, 500-and-some-odd-thousand Floridian — Republicans in Florida have asked for an absentee ballot, and 275,000 of those have already been mailed in.

So a big chunk of the vote is already in. It would be interesting to see where that vote is. We know that the Romney campaign has been working the absentee and the early voting very hard. It’s possible that could be good news for him. But, of course, we won’t know until the votes are counted.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just in our last minutes, Judy, what are the campaigns telling you about how they’re going to spend the weekend in terms of where they appear, and what kind of ads and what message they’re putting out?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well the message is pretty much what we’ve been hearing.

From Rick Santorum, it’s an appeal. He’s the one who is saying, I’m the true conservative in this race. I’m the candidate who not only believes in social conservative values. I’m a true fiscal conservative. He paints — as we heard in the debate last night, he’s trying to paint Romney and Gingrich as the candidates who’ve gone over to the dark side, in his words.

But, at this point, this is a tough slog for Rick Santorum. The polls are showing that Romney and Gingrich are the two who are doing better in the polls. Mitt Romney is campaigning all over the state this weekend. He is feeling — his campaign is feeling a lot more confident than they were a week ago after South Carolina, when they took a drubbing from Newt Gingrich.

And the Gingrich folks feel like they have to fight back now. Newt Gingrich is hitting seven different spots across the state tomorrow, campaigning, I think, three or four places on Sunday, and he’s hitting another seven on Monday. It’s a dogfight. They are out for every vote. As you said earlier, the polls indicate Romney’s ahead.

But, you know, we shall see. We won’t know until the voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Judy Woodruff in Florida, and there through the polling and decision on Tuesday, thanks so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.