TOPICS > Politics

In Florida, Vitriol Flies as Romney Sits Atop Polls Before Primary

January 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Quinnipiac University survey of likely Republican voters in Florida showed Mitt Romney with a 14-point advantage over rival Newt Gingrich Monday. Gwen Ifill discusses the increasingly bitter campaign ahead of Tuesday's primary with Judy Woodruff, reporting from Tampa.
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JEFFREY BROWN: This was primary eve in Florida in a Republican presidential contest that’s turned increasingly bitter. As the hours tick down, the two main contestants in the state continue to pound away at each other.

It was an upbeat Mitt Romney at a Jacksonville rally this morning, but he wasn’t letting up on Newt Gingrich.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I think the real reason he hasn’t done so well connecting with the people of Florida is that people actually saw him in those debates and listened to his background and his experience. And they learned, for instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. And they said, that’s not what we want in the White House.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Gingrich returned fire, delivering a sharp critique of Romney at a Jacksonville rally of his own.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Every time we nominate a moderate, we lose. So, 1996, we nominate a moderate. Bill Clinton wins reelection by a big margin. 2008, we nominate a moderate. Barack Obama wins.

Why would anybody in the establishment think that a Massachusetts moderate, which is a liberal by Republican standards, pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, pro-gay rights, why would they think that he’s going to be able to debate Barack Obama?

JEFFREY BROWN: The head of a pro-Gingrich group, Rick Tyler, went further, calling Romney — quote — “despicable and disgraceful.”

With the vitriol flying, late polls gave Romney a double-digit lead. The Quinnipiac survey of likely Republican voters in Florida showed him with a 14-point advantage, 43 to 29 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gingrich insisted he was closing the gap, but Romney told reporters — quote — “You can sense it’s coming our way.”

Elsewhere, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum returned to campaigning today in Missouri. He canceled weekend appearances in Florida after his 3-year-old daughter was hospitalized with pneumonia. And Texas Congressman Ron Paul kept his focus on states holding February caucuses, where he’s expected to perform better.

But much of the focus in Florida today remained on conservative voters.

Judy Woodruff has been sampling their views leading up to the primary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The crowds who showed up in Winter Park on short notice for a Tea Party Express bus tour to rally Florida voters were smaller than they were a couple of years ago.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s when passionate Tea Party members helped usher in a powerful, fiscally conservative presence in the U.S. Congress.

WOMAN: Whoever that candidate may be, stay engaged.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They were enough to give Republicans control of the House. Since then, the movement’s reputation has lost popularity, especially among independent and moderate voters, who are increasingly the key to electoral success.

Even so, conservative voters identified with the Tea Party or not are very much on the minds of the presidential candidates scanning the Sunshine State right now for votes.

NEWT GINGRICH: We have to have a conservative. Otherwise, we are going to be as frustrated with the Republican as we were with the Democrat.

(APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH: Please, just try to convince your friends the only effective, practical, conservative vote on Tuesday is for Newt Gingrich, because that’s just — that’s just a fact.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I need your help. Thank you very, very much.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m convinced that if we have leaders that will draw on the patriotism of the American people, which is deep and abiding, and if we will turn to the principles that made us great again, that we will overcome those challenges and keep America the shining city on a hill Ronald Reagan spoke of.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: And I intend to be one of those leaders, with your help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While two-thirds of Florida voters say they are conservative, the issues that matter most to them differ greatly, from cutting government spending to promoting religious values.

AMY KREMER, Tea Party Express: We’re not going away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite Mitt Romney’s double-digit lead in all the polls, Amy Kremer said over the weekend she sees signs of Tea Party members coalescing around Gingrich.

AMY KREMER: They want somebody who is going to fight back and stand up and say that we cannot continue down this path.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former corporate executive and Tea Party founder Jack Tymann, however, believes Romney is the likely nominee and worries that Christian conservatives may not climb on board if that happens.

JACK TYMANN, Tea Party: That’s the group I worry most about, because they have a tendency to stay away sometimes if they don’t like a candidate, and — because they are, I would say, more single-issue — or more driven by the social and moral issues than they are about the economy or even about wars and so forth.

Romney is going to have a huge challenge to somehow excite them and bring them on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, says the campaign believes this gap can be bridged.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, Romney campaign strategist: People are going to be looking for somebody who, while they may not share their exact faith, is a person of strong values. And that — and so long as the president shares values with the evangelical community, I think that’s something that they can accept.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Romney’s appeal to voters here is largely practical. And that’s enough to satisfy many of the party faithful, who say their main concerns are not ideological.

BOB NELSON, Romney supporter: I just appreciate his experience and knowledge. I wish he were a tad more conservative. But I will live with his conservatism the way it is. I think he will become more conservative after the election. When he gets into the White House, I think he’ll show his real conservative colors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This idea that conservative values need to get back to the White House, how much is that a factor in your vote?

VIVIAN GROTO, Romney supporter: That is. That is. But I tell you, the economy, we are so in debt. I’m thinking of our grandchildren. We have eight grandchildren. Is it $15 trillion or $17 trillion? The T’s just get me. The M’s are gone, the millions and the billions. It’s now the T’s. We have got to stop spending. We have to cut — rein in. And I think Romney is the one to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Kari Moulton, Romney’s own family values are enough of a draw to get her vote.

KARI MOULTON, Romney supporter: The person who lives closely to how I would like my children to live or values that I uphold would be who I would want to represent me in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the other hand, at a forum sponsored by the nonprofit socially conservative group Liberty Council, we met voters who don’t see Romney as a strong enough pro-life leader.

KATHY IKONOMIDIS, Florida: At this point, he is not someone that I’m considering. I — much as he claims to be conservative, I have not seen that from him. And, again, this is too important of an election to just give it to the person that is the most persuasive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Neils Lobo is voting for Newt Gingrich, largely because he worries Romney doesn’t offer a conservative enough contrast with the president on issues like health care.

NEILS LOBO, Gingrich supporter: Mitt Romney’s position is somewhat compromised by his Massachusetts-care problems. So, even though I trust him to want to repeal Obamacare, I don’t think that he will be as clear and easily able to do it and easily able to make the case to the American people, because I think Obama does have something over him on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dennis Maher of Winter Park argues Rick Santorum, who had to skip campaigning here this weekend because his young daughter was hospitalized, is the stronger candidate. Maher says, if Romney’s the nominee, he may vote for President Obama, calculating that keeping Obama in office, he would create a better chance for electing a staunch conservative in 2016.

DENNIS MAHER, Florida: I think if Obama serves another four years, more people will be inclined to vote for a more conservative candidate. If Romney is in there, then people are going to go right back to the Democrat side in two to four years, and we will be right back where we started from when Romney term expires.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathy Ikonomidis woman doesn’t go that far. She’s leaning Santorum, and dismisses Gingrich.

KATHY IKONOMIDIS: I’m not looking for a perfect candidate, but I am looking for a faithful candidate, faithful to their marriage, faithful to the lord, faithful to their commitments in politics, faithful to the decisions they made, not pandering to their audience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If Romney were the nominee?

KATHY IKONOMIDIS: I would have to take a step of faith and vote for him anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jack Tymann, who is supporting Santorum, sees a warning sign in voters like these at the church in Winter Park. He believes their hardened positions are partly an outgrowth of negative campaign ads and rhetoric, which have been flying over television, radio and online, and sees a serious division within the Republican Party that may not be resolved any time soon.

JACK TYMANN: The problem that I see particularly in these last two months is, we’re seeing a campaign, a Republican campaign, where Reagan’s 11th commandment is being violated left and right, don’t — shall not attack another Republican.

And they aren’t attacking policies. They’re attacking the person. And it’s really gotten ugly. And while I believe the voters would like to coalesce around somebody, I don’t know how they’re going to get unity in the Republican Party, not mind nationwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If Romney wins in Florida, the growing view is he will still face a drawn-out challenge to bring conservative voters under his tent in the general election.

GWEN IFILL: And Judy joins us now from Tampa.

Judy, it’s so interesting hearing your conversations with these voters. And I wonder, how do they square up with what we’re seeing, these polls which show Romney kind of running away with the Florida vote?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that when you’re out on the road.

First of all, as you know, Gwen, this is a closed primary. It’s only registered Republicans who can vote tomorrow. A lot of them have already voted early. They’ve sent in early ballots or they have requested absentee ballots. A number, something like 600,000, have already been sent in.

But you get more of a mixed picture. Sure, there’s a lot of support for Gov. Mitt Romney. People think he looks presidential, he acts presidential. You heard some of the voters there at his event yesterday in Naples telling us that he seems like someone who they can trust.

They’re a little hesitant at times when you ask them to describe what they like about Mitt Romney. And you heard that gentleman say to me, I think he’s going to be more conservative once he gets in the White House.

But it is interesting. And among the evangelical voters, the — clearly, the Tea Party — more defined conservative voters, there’s hesitation.

They — but they have been inundated, Gwen, with negative ads, day after day, $16 million worth from Mitt Romney and from the super PAC, so-called super PAC supporting him, and then another eight or nine million or so from the — I’m sorry — $4 million or $5 million, the Romney folks outspending 4-to-1.

So they are covered with negative ads. And that’s influencing what they’re saying and thinking about these candidates, too.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean compared to the other primaries we have covered so far this cycle? This is — is the tone a lot more harsh than it’s been, where we have been before?

JUDY WOODRUFF: No question, Gwen.

I mean, there were some negative — we saw some negative, mildly critical material, by comparison. I was in Iowa. You were in New Hampshire and you were in South Carolina. By contrast, in Florida, we’re hearing “liar,” as you heard a moment ago.

You’re hearing the surrogates for the candidates calling the other candidate despicable. Today, Newt Gingrich described John McCain and Bob Dole, former nominees for president by the Republican Party, as — he, in effect, said that, since they were losers, it was a mistake for Mitt Romney to trot them out or to run them out as surrogates.

And I heard John McCain make a pretty angry — have a pretty angry reaction to that. It’s gotten dirty. It’s gotten personal. Tempers are high. And the interesting thing, Gwen, I mean, I noticed yesterday, when I was covering Gov. Romney in Naples — he introduced — it was a crowd of maybe 1,000, 1,500 people.

He introduced his wife, Ann, and he introduced one of his sons and a grandchild. And he launched right into Newt Gingrich. He didn’t waste any time talking about himself or what he wants to do as president. He lit into Newt Gingrich over the Fannie Mae — or, rather, the Freddie Mac money and how — he made fun of Gingrich, the Goldilocks comment, that he wants it a certain way when he debates.

And he then went on to talk about what he wants to do as president. But it was a striking approach to take, I thought.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make — sometimes we invest too much in the idea of who is endorsing whom. But does it make a difference that in the last 24-48 hours, we have seen Mitt Romney get — win the endorsement of Herman Cain, the erstwhile Republican 999 candidate, and also some pretty kind words coming from Sarah Palin from Alaska, saying that — accusing Romney of bad faith, if not exactly endorsing Gingrich?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think all this is a reflection of how ugly it’s gotten.

I’m not sure how much these endorsements matter. Surely, for voters who are wavering at the last minute, they can make a difference. Todd Palin, Sarah Palin’s husband, is going to be here in Florida maybe as early as tonight — Newt Gingrich announced it earlier today — going around speaking for him around the state.

And Mitt Romney has had a flood of surrogates speaking for him. I think everybody — you know, everybody wants to know, how much difference do these surrogates make? For example, Jeb Bush, the former governor, has not endorsed. The very popular junior Republican senator from here, Marco Rubio, whose name is touted as a possible vice presidential pick, he has not endorsed.

I think there’s some calculating going on. But what you see is a multiplier effect.

And, Gwen, I want to just put in a word here at the end and make a correction. Last Friday, when I was on the program, I made a reference to Newt Gingrich having been endorsed by an organization called the Hispanic Leadership Network. In reality, that’s a nonprofit group. They don’t make endorsements. It was my mistake. I misunderstood something I was told.

We don’t like to make mistakes. And when we do, we like to be up front about what happened.

So — but having said that, there are endorsements that are happening every day all the time. I’m not sure, in the last analysis, how much difference they make.

GWEN IFILL: Well, fortunately, we’re 24 hours away, less than that, from voters actually voting. So, we will be talking to you about that tomorrow night.

Thanks a lot, Judy.