Gingrich, Romney Make Last-Minute Pitches on Eve of Florida Primary

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 30, 2012 at 8:47 AM EST

Ocean Drive in St. Lucie County, Fla.; photo by Christina Bellantoni/PBS NewsHour

Ocean Drive, St. Lucie County, Fla. Photo by Christina Bellantoni/PBS NewsHour.

The Morning Line

Your Morning Line comes to you this Monday from economically distressed St. Lucie County, Fla., where shops have been shuttered and high-end beach resorts left abandoned.

As many as 2 million Republican voters might cast primary ballots Tuesday, making Florida the biggest test yet for the GOP hopefuls. That’s more votes than the first three contests had combined. (Or as one South Florida Democrat put it, last summer’s Miami-Dade mayoral election included more voters than the Iowa caucuses.)

The latest polls suggest Mitt Romney is back on top, and it seems the former Massachusetts governor is brimming with confidence, while not letting Newt Gingrich out of his sights. At a rally in Naples on Sunday, Romney unleashed a scathing attack on Gingrich, accusing the former House speaker of making excuses for his downward slide in the Sunshine State.

“He’s on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he thinks he’s had difficulty here in Florida,” Romney told an outdoor crowd of roughly 2,000, reports CNN’s Rachel Streitfeld. “But you know, we’ve got a president who has a lot of excuses, and the excuses are over, it’s time to produce.”

“If we failed somewhere, if we failed the debate, if we failed to get the support of people, it’s time to look in the mirror,” Romney added. “And my own view is the reason that Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is that people of Florida have watched the debates, have listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, ‘You know what, Mitt Romney’s the guy we’re going to support.’”

An NBC News/Marist poll of Florida GOP voters released Sunday showed Romney with a 15-point advantage over Gingrich, 42 to 27 percent.

At a Sunday morning press conference, Gingrich vowed to soldier on until the convention. “The most significant thing in both the polls this morning is that when you add the two conservatives together, we clearly beat Romney,” Gingrich said. “And I think Romney’s got a very real challenge in trying to get a majority at the convention. We will go all the way to the convention. I believe the Republican Party will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts.”

It’s worth noting that when Rick Santorum is removed from the GOP equation in the NBC-Marist poll, Romney’s lead over Gingrich grows to a 16-point margin, putting a bit of a dent in the former House speaker’s argument.

Gingrich also received the support of former rival Herman Cain over the weekend, and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin continued to defend him against attacks from establishment Republicans. But that all may be too little too late for Gingrich.

Romney is favored to win Tuesday’s primary and capture all 50 of the state’s delegates. But as our NewsHour team has found across Florida, Gingrich’s support is present in every nook and cranny.

“I was going for Romney but now am leaning toward Newt. I’ll make my decision on Tuesday,” Grace D’Adamo told me in Jensen Beach on Sunday.

And Gingrich told donors at a fundraiser in this part of the state, “I fully expect the next couple of weeks to get wild and woolly,” according to the Palm Beach Daily News.

The Republicans here watched the debates and have been inundated with ads on television and radio. In one 30-minute period on network television Sunday morning, nine ads played. All were negative. Romney is attacking Gingrich over what he’s said about Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is suggesting Romney had a liberal record as Massachusetts governor. Super PACs representing each bashed the other.

Gingrich has been outspent on the Florida airwaves by a nearly $12 million margin, a source monitoring Florida spending told Politico.

From Alexander Burns’ post:

Through Friday, the Romney campaign and the super PAC Restore Our Future had spent a combined $15,340,000, the source said. Gingrich’s campaign and the super PAC Winning Our Future spent a comparatively paltry $3,390,000.

That’s just the differential in paid-media spending, so it doesn’t include Romney’s edge in field operations, mail, et cetera. And Romney’s advantage isn’t likely to go away in the primary, though the general election is an entirely different story.

The Winning our Future Super PAC has been largely bankrolled by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, profiled this weekend by the New York Times’ Mike McIntire and Michael Luo. The PAC, run by ex-Gingrich aides, has a new ad playing on heavy rotation focused on Romney’s record as a businessman. You can watch it here.

As the TV ads influence people deciding at the last minute, Romney has also relied on an aggressive early vote program. State officials said Friday that 187,974 early ballots had been cast and that of the more than 520,000 absentee ballots requested, 274,767 had been mailed in. That number is expected to grow by Tuesday.

Republicans had until Saturday to cast their votes ahead of time. Most of the former candidates still appear on the ballot — Cain, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry among them.

Romney scooped up endorsements from both the Miami Herald and Tampa Tribune over the weekend.

This weekend, Judy Woodruff talked to Republicans all over the state and reports back in this blog post.

And as Gwen Ifill (@pbsgwen) noted in a post on Friday, the voters have been a step ahead of the curve all season.

Follow our team as we criss-cross the Sunshine State: @judywoodruff, @merrillnewshour, @quinnbowman and @cbellantoni

THE HISPANIC VOTE

On Friday, Romney’s son, Craig, who recorded a Spanish-language ad for his dad, greeted voters at Versailles, a popular restaurant and bakery in Little Havana. He also visited an early voting center in Coral Gables.

NewsHour reporter-producer Quinn Bowman and one of your Morning Line co-authors spent a few days in South Florida reporting on the candidates’ efforts to woo Hispanics, who are expected to comprise one in every 11 voters in the primary.

A common theme we heard from these voters? “Obama es un disastre!”

But Team Obama does not seem to be worried. Sergio Bendixen, the campaign’s pollster on Hispanic issues and Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic Press, penned a memo Monday morning titled “Republicans Seal Their Fate with Hispanic Voters in 2012.”

The pair argues that Romney and Gingrich’s “extreme rhetoric on immigration during the televised debates has rejected our history as a nation of immigrants and alienated millions of Hispanic voters nationally.”

“But Hispanics’ opposition to the Republican candidates is much broader than their rejection of their immigration rhetoric and positions. On the issues most important to Hispanic voters, Republicans are on the wrong side,” Bendixen and Domenzain wrote.

They suggest that a new national Univision/Latino Decisions poll of Hispanic voters gives President Obama the advantage in November.

The poll found Romney and Gingrich with poor favorable/unfavorable ratings: 28/41 and 24/44, respectively. “Even a strong primary performance by Romney in Florida, a state with the highest proportion of conservative Hispanic voters, should not be taken as a sign of growing Republican strength in the state,” they wrote.

Democratic consultant and Obama booster Freddy Balsera of Miami told the Morning Line that he thinks the Hispanic vote will be key to the president’s re-election. In 2008, Hispanics comprised 10 percent of the state’s electorate, and Balsera said some estimates put the expected figure for 2012 closer to 15 percent. “If he does just as well as he did in 2008 and the Hispanic vote grows from 10 to 15 percent, that is real votes and real numbers when the final tally is counted,” he said.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • Romney and President Obama are essentially tied in a USA TODAY/Gallup Swing States survey released Sunday. The poll of a dozen battleground states showed Romney edging the president, 48 percent to 47 percent, while Mr. Obama leads Gingrich by 14 points, 54 percent to 40 percent. USA TODAY Washington bureau chief Susan Page has the full write-up here. (And see her on Monday’s NewsHour, along with Stu Rothenberg.)

  • Rick Santorum will resume campaigning Monday, making stops in Missouri and Minnesota. The former Pennsylvania senator canceled his weekend appearances in Florida after his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, was hospitalized with pneumonia. Santorum told supporters by phone Sunday evening that she had shown improvement and would be able to go home in a few days, reports Anthony Campisi of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • “Enough with the debates,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” He said they are driving up the negative opinions voters have of the Republican Party. He said it’s turned into “mud-wrestling.”

  • Friday night on the NewsHour, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne have a great discussion about the primary fight and the State of the Union address. Dionne argued that Santorum should sue the Republican Party of Iowa for not giving him credit for winning the caucuses for two weeks, and Brooks said he was less excited about the president’s speech a few days later.

  • Gingrich said on Monday’s “Good Morning America” that he would endorse Romney should he become the nominee, but cautioned GOP voters that shouldn’t happen. He said Romney is someone who “can’t even distinguish between Romneycare and Obamacare.” Gingrich also noted that liberal billionaire George Soros told Reuters that he finds President Obama and Romney to be similar. He said, “There isn’t all that much difference except for the crowd that they bring with them.”

  • The New York Times’ Ashley Parker explores the campaign as it’s covered in 140 characters.

  • Roll Call’s Ambreen Ali talks with Republican Muslims who have been discouraged by the 2012 primary fight.

  • Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is back on the Obama payroll in an official capacity, reports Politico’s Glenn Thrush.

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed victory in releasing year-end fundraising totals: $61.4 million compared with $54.5 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

  • President Obama hosted former President George H. W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at the White House, Politico reported.

  • Vice President Joe Biden said at the Democratic retreat in Maryland on Friday, “I really do think that we’re going to win back the House.”

  • Jack Lew, President Obama’s former budget director, is now the White House chief of staff.

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • Newt Gingrich holds five Florida rallies: in Jacksonville at 7:30 a.m., Pensacola at 10 a.m., Tampa at 1 p.m., Fort Myers at 3 p.m. and Orlando at 6 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney holds three Florida rallies: in Jacksonville at 8:10 a.m., Dunedin at 2:15 p.m. and the Villages at 6:10 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum delivers remarks in Cottleville, Mo., at 3:30 p.m. and holds a town hall in Luverne, Minn., at 8:30 p.m.

  • Ron Paul has no public campaign events scheduled but will return to the trail Tuesday in Colorado.

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.