Florida’s Time to Shine

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 31, 2012 at 8:15 AM EDT

Florida voting; photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ray Roy sets up a polling station in Tampa as Floridians prepare to vote in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Polls are open in Florida, which becomes the fourth state to weigh in on the GOP presidential nomination fight.

All the latest polls show Mitt Romney poised to claim a decisive victory in the Sunshine State, a result that would give him the boost of momentum he needed following his 12-point defeat to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary 10 days ago.

With 50 delegates at stake in Tuesday’s winner-take-all contest, Romney and Gingrich didn’t hold back in their attacks on one another during the final full day of campaigning. (Click here to watch our recap of Monday’s events.)

Romney, rallying supporters Monday morning in Jacksonville, accused Gingrich of blaming his poor Florida debate performances last week on the level of audience participation. “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.”

Gingrich, who also started the day in Jacksonville, took aim at Romney’s conservative credentials, comparing the former Massachusetts governor to past GOP nominees who went on to lose in the general election.

“Every time we nominate a moderate, we lose,” Gingrich argued. “So, 1996, we nominate a moderate; Bill Clinton wins re-election 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?” Gingrich added.

That level of vitriol has been reflected on Florida television sets, with 92 percent of the ads run in the last week being negative, according to analysis performed by Kantar Media CMAG.

And Media Monitors reported that Romney ran 2,196 ads in Florida, compared with 492 spots paid for by Gingrich.

But it seems that negativity has not dampened the enthusiasm of Republican voters, with nearly 600,000 early and absentee ballots already cast.

USA TODAY’s Catalina Camia crunches the numbers:

The Florida Republican Party says 308,416 absentee ballots have been returned and 283,250 early votes have been cast. That’s about 100,000 more votes than were cast before the 2008 primary day.

The number of absentee ballots returned will no doubt go up before the primary. In all, more than 500,000 absentee ballots were requested. Early voting ended on Saturday.

Two of the Republican contenders — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — have already moved beyond Florida. Both will campaign Tuesday in Colorado and Nevada, which holds its caucuses Saturday.

Looking ahead, Dan Balz of the Washington Post writes about the possibility of a protracted GOP nominating fight and the potential damage it could cause the party’s brand:

Whatever the outcome Tuesday, the Florida campaign has crystallized the battle between Romney and Gingrich. The backlash against Gingrich since his victory in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 has made Romney the clear establishment favorite in a party in which tensions between the GOP elite and its insurgent grass roots are still strong.

That battle will play out in Nevada, Colorado, Missouri and Maine in the coming weeks, but for now, all eyes remain on Florida.

Follow the NewsHour team in the Sunshine State on the big day: @judywoodruff, @merrillnewshour and @quinnbowman.

DISPATCH FROM LITTLE HAVANA

As Ray Suarez notes in his blog post, recent coverage of the Hispanic vote ahead of Florida’s GOP primary has been as outsized as ever. Cubans make up the majority of the Hispanics expected to vote, and the presidential hopefuls have been working to woo them in Little Havana with retail politics, appearing on local television and radio and seemingly non-stop Spanish-language ads.

Watch our segment from Monday here or below:

FLORIDA FORECAST

Tuesday’s weather in the Sunshine State looks ideal for voters who have yet to perform their civic duty. Here’s the outlook for some of Florida’s major cities, courtesy of the Weather Channel.

  • Miami: Sun and clouds mixed. Slight chance of a rain shower. High of 78 degrees.

  • Orlando: Sunshine and clouds. High of 77 degrees.

  • Pensacola: Considerable clouds this morning. Some decrease in clouds later in the day. High of 71 degrees.

  • Tallahassee: Sun and clouds mixed. High around 75 degrees.

  • Tampa: Sunshine and a few clouds. Warm. High around 80 degrees.

  • Jacksonville: Sunshine and clouds mixed. High around 75 degrees.

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED

Gwen Ifill (@pbsgwen) has five things to watch for in Florida.

Tune in to the NewsHour for the regular broadcast Tuesday night and for our election special at 11 p.m., with analysis from Mark Shields, David Brooks, Stu Rothenberg and half of your Morning Line dynamic duo, Christina Bellantoni.

You can also check out our site for results in our nifty map center and watch a live stream of the candidates’ speeches.

Team NewsHour has been tweeting up a storm from Florida. Check out the highlights and photos here.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • Mitt Romney has been reciting “America the Beautiful” on the campaign trail. Monday night at a rally in the Villages, Fla., he sung it.

  • Five people had the chance to ask President Obama a question in his Google+ Hangout Monday night, Lucy Madison of CBS News reports.

  • But Mr. Obama did not answer the most popular question, which dealt with marijuana policy, Roll Call’s Kate Ackley reports.

  • Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC stunt raised $1.02 million in the fourth quarter, he announced in a press release Tuesday morning. In an accompanying memo to the Federal Election Commission, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow treasurer Shauna Polk added, “Stephen Colbert, President of ABTT, has asked that I quote him as saying, ”Yeah! How you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep!’”

  • Super PAC financial disclosures are due Tuesday.

  • The Wesleyan Media Project looked at the 2012 GOP nominating contest and found, to no great surprise, that outside group involvement has skyrocketed compared to 2008.

  • The Hill’s Bob Cusack and Kevin Bodargus offer a forensic account of the 1997 coup that is still making headlines for Gingrich.

  • Stu Rothenberg and Susan Page offered analysis about battleground states and the presidential contest on Monday’s NewsHour.

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes has a look at the early voting numbers in the special election for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, which was left vacant when former Democratic Rep. David Wu resigned last August following a sex scandal. Mapes also has this preview piece of the race between Democrat Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Rob Cornilles.

  • Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla looks at the role Medicare has played in the Oregon campaign and how it could be a sleeper issue this fall.

  • More than 40 senators announced plans to draft legislation to allow the Keystone XL Pipeline project to proceed, stirring the pot on a contentious election-year environmental issue.

  • Roll Call’s Kate Tummarello reports longtime Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin will retire Tuesday and will be replaced by Elizabeth MacDonough, the first woman to ever hold the position.

  • “The noon deadline Monday for Occupy D.C. protesters to stop camping in McPherson Square and another federal park passed without confrontation, with the rancorous group draping a gigantic tarp over a statue of Civil War Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, then dancing and playing music into the twilight under the watchful eye of police,” reports Meredith Somers of the Washington Times.

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • Mitt Romney campaigns in Tampa with stops at 9:45 a.m., 11 a.m. at his campaign headquarters and a primary night event at 7:45 p.m.

  • Newt Gingrich visits a polling precinct in Orlando at 8:30 a.m., stops by his Polk County campaign headquarters in Lakeland at 11:15 a.m., makes another stop in Plant City at 12:30 p.m., drops by another polling precinct in Celebration at 3 p.m. and holds a primary night event in Orlando at 8 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum holds a rally in Lone Tree, Colo., at 12 p.m. and hosts a primary night watch party in Las Vegas at 10:30 p.m.

  • Ron Paul makes three Colorado campaign stops: in Fort Collins at 12 p.m., Denver at 2 p.m. and in Colorado Springs at 4 p.m. He also holds a campaign event in Henderson, Nev., at 8:30 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @quinnbowman.