Gingrich, Romney Slug It Out in Florida

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 26, 2012 at 8:04 AM EDT

Hand puppets of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney; photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Lynn Coffin, creator of Bozo Party, shows off hand puppets of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney boxing during a campaign event this week in Sarasota, Fla. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The race for Florida is on. A new CNN/Time/ORC poll released Wednesday of likely GOP primary voters in the Sunshine State showed former House speaker Newt Gingrich running a close second to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, narrowing a 25-point deficit to two points in the span of a week.

Romney received the support of 36 percent of respondents, down from 43 percent in mid-January. He was followed by Gingrich at 34 percent. The gap between the two was within the survey’s five-point margin of error.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum placed third with 11 percent, down eight points from the previous week. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has not spent much time in the state, saw his support hold steady at 9 percent.

Gingrich polled stronger on the first day the survey was in the field — last Sunday — the day after he won the South Carolina primary. On that day, he led Romney by a 38 percent to 32 percent margin. But in the final two days of polling the tables were turned, with Romney capturing 38 percent and Gingrich receiving 29 percent.

Among voters who identified themselves as “conservative,” Gingrich had a 39 percent to 29 percent lead over Romney. The two leading GOP contenders had a more even split among Tea Party supporters, with Gingrich taking 39 percent and Romney with 35 percent.

The survey reveals that Romney is on somewhat better terrain in Florida than he was in South Carolina, where exit polls showed both conservative voters and Tea Party backers favoring Gingrich by 20 points.

Meanwhile, a Suffolk University/7NEWS poll of 600 likely Florida voters found Romney the stronger candidate in a general election matchup against President Obama.

Romney led the president, 47 percent to 42 percent, in the Sunshine State, but Mr. Obama would beat Gingrich by nine points, 49 to 40.

“Newt Gingrich is weak among Florida independents and likely Democratic voters compared to Romney,” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, said in a statement. “If Florida is one of six key states that swings the national election, independents in Florida hold that key, and this poll suggests that Newt won’t be able to secure Florida for his party.”

Suffolk also clocked Gingrich’s popularity rating at just 29 percent favorable, compared with Romney’s 44 percent favorability rating in Florida.

WE NOW RETURN TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING…

Romney and Gingrich spent much of Wednesday hammering each other on policy and personality after a one-day detente when both candidates seemed more focused on President Obama and his State of the Union address.

Gingrich, at a forum in Miami hosted by Spanish-language network Univision, slammed Romney for proposing a policy of self-deportation to address the country’s illegal immigration problem:

“You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island bank accounts…to have some fantasy this far from reality. For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so so cut off that she’s going to self-deport, I mean, this is an Obama-level fantasy.”

The Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson reports on Romney’s response to Gingrich’s attack:

Romney, during his own Univision interview before a live audience at Miami-Dade College, noted that both Gingrich and a spokesman had previously expressed their belief in the concept of self-deportation.

He also said it was “unbecoming of a presidential candidate” to “pander” on that issue.

He also hit his rival when asked about a pro-Gingrich radio ad that labeled Romney “anti-immigrant.”

Romney said, “It’s very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet.” Candidates can have political differences, he said, “but we don’t attack each other with those kind of terrible terms.”

Gingrich yanked the radio ad from the airwaves after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who has not endorsed a candidate — called it “inaccurate and inflammatory.”

The Romney and Gingrich campaigns also feuded over Gingrich’s ties to Ronald Reagan, reports Daniel Malloy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

With the polls showing a tight race in Florida, look for some sharp exchanges when the candidates meet in Jacksonville on Thursday night for their last debate before next Tuesday’s primary.

SUNSHINE STATE SPENDING

Friend of the NewsHour the Center for Public Integrity crunched the numbers and found outside groups have spent $6.5 million so far in Florida. That’s mostly from super PACs but also includes labor union AFSCME’s $1 million anti-Romney buy last week.

Center for Public Integrity’s John Dunbar explains that while the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future says it plans to spend $6 million in Florida, the money hasn’t shown up yet in FEC records.

The totals for the biggest spenders:

  • Restore Our Future (pro-Romney): $4.9 million

  • AFSCME (anti-Romney): $1 million

  • Winning Our Future (pro-Gingrich): $270,955

  • Red White and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum): $224,741

ABOUT THOSE TAX RETURNS…

President Obama’s re-election team launched its own offensive against Romney on Wednesday, over the issue of his tax returns.

After finally agreeing to release documents for 2010 and 2011 — on Tuesday — the former business executive now finds himself under pressure to issue more.

The Obama campaign notes that the last four presidents released somewhere between eight and 14 years of returns — and that Romney’s father, George, put out 12 years worth when he sought the presidency in the 1960s.

This is the clearest sign yet that the tax issue for Romney won’t be going away anytime soon, and the “drip, drip, drip…” scenario he has repeatedly dismissed could very well become a reality.

Romney was asked about that possibility in an interview Wednesday with the Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo.

“I’m the only candidate for president on the Republican side that has put out two years,” Romney said. “I have put out more information than any other candidate. That’s my view. There’s plenty there. I think there’s some 800 pages. Take a look. And enjoy the experience. And I think that gives people an ample view of my personal finances.”

But since Romney has struggled to address questions about his finances in recent weeks, more problems could be ahead. He even warned of such a scenario in the debate on Jan. 19, saying, “Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks.”

But it’s not just the tax issue dogging Romney. Democrats are going after him in Florida Thursday over his work at Bain Capital.

The Democratic National Committee will hold a press conference starring two workers — one from Florida, one from Indiana — who the Democrats say were harmed by Bain’s actions.

SELLING THE SOTU

As the president begins Day 2 of his post-State of the Union sales job (with stops in Las Vegas and Denver), he rises to a sunnier outlook for his re-election prospects, as a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds more people approving of his job performance than who disapprove.

The survey showed President Obama’s approval rating at 48 percent, compared to 46 percent who disapproved.

On some key economic measurements, the president’s standing also showed improvement. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said the economy will get better over the next year, versus 17 percent who said they thought it would get worse. Last October, 21 percent expected better while 32 predicted worse.

Thirty percent of Americans now believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 61 percent said things were off on the wrong track. The “right direction” number was up eight points from last month and 13 points from October.

The forecast for Congress was not as bright, with approval of the legislative branch at 13 percent, a single point above the record low of the NBC/WSJ poll. Eighty percent of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing.

“The president still has a very long road ahead of him,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart told NBC’s Domenico Montanaro. “[B]ut for the first time in a long time, he finds that he has the wind at his back. For the Congress, they are going into a headwind, and there is a need to prove themselves.”

Data shows about 38 million people watched the president’s address, down from the 45 million person average.

POST-SPEECH DEBRIEFS

The NewsHour sat down with Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler on Wednesday night for a look at the president’s State of the Union address. Gwen Ifill also discussed Obama’s vision of the role of government with two economists.

As Morning Line readers know, we hosted a State of the Union watch party Tuesday night via Google+. How did it work exactly? We offered this explainer on Wednesday’s broadcast, and outlined plans to do more in the future. If you’re a Florida resident and interested in participating, email cbellantoni@newshour.org.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • Paul talked to NPR’s Robert Siegel in an interview that aired Wednesday evening. Among the ground covered: the viability of Paul’s campaign, Romney’s taxes and whether the Texas congressman might launch a third party bid.

  • Nevada politics guru Jon Ralston offers some lessons for the 2012 presidential fight for the Silver State based on the 2010 Senate seat battle between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle.

  • A poll released Wednesday by Univision, ABC News and Latino Decisions found that Romney leads Gingrich by 15 percentage points among Hispanic Floridians planning to vote in next week’s GOP primary. The survey also showed President Obama with strong advantages over Romney (67 percent to 25 percent) and Gingrich (70 percent to 22 percent), but with less than 60 percent of respondents in each matchup saying they were certain of their support.

  • Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz writes about the complicated relationship between Gingrich and Santorum, labeling them “frenemies.”

  • As the four major candidates prepare to meet on yet another stage, the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty delves into why there are so many debates.

  • Fidel Castro had his say on the Republican presidential race, calling it a contest of “idiocy and ignorance,” the Associated Press reports.

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had what the New York Times’ Helene Cooper described as a “frosty” meeting Thursday at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. The governor was seen pointing her finger at Mr. Obama and told reporters that he “was a little disturbed about my book” on immigration.

  • North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller will retire instead of run against fellow Democratic Rep. David Price, a decision strongly influenced by the state”s redistricting process.

  • After launching a failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced Wednesday that she will seek a fourth term in Congress, Roll Call’s Joshua Miller reports.

  • Politico’s David Catanese breaks down some new poll numbers from the Democratic aligned House Majority PAC, looking at eight targeted congressional districts. The survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling, also shows House Speaker John Boehner’s approval rating at 26 percent.

  • The Hill’s Pete Kasperowicz looks the farewell lawmakers gave Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., on the House floor Thursday morning.

  • CNN’s Deirdre Walsh details Speaker Boehner’s reminder Wednesday that members “be in proper business attire when you come to the floor of the House.”

  • Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told Bloomberg News he does not expect to remain on the team should the president win re-election this fall. “He’s not going to ask me to stay on, I’m pretty confident. I’m confident he’ll be president. But I’m also confident he’s going to have the privilege of having another secretary of the Treasury… Something else for me,” Geithner said.

  • First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit to a school in Virginia for lunch Wednesday. She joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and celebrity chef Rachael Ray to eat with elementary school students and to promote her ongoing effort to curb childhood obesity. According to a White House pool report, Ray designed the menu: turkey tacos, brown rice, black bean and corn salad, and fresh fruit.

  • Gwen Ifill and four others will be inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame in a ceremony Thursday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • The four remaining GOP contenders will meet in Jacksonville on Thursday at 8 p.m. for a debate hosted by CNN and the Republican Party of Florida.

  • Rick Santorum attends a prayer breakfast in Tallahassee at 7 a.m., hosts a Tallahassee town hall at 9 a.m. and participates in a Pensacola rally at 1 p.m.

  • Newt Gingrich addresses a Tea Party rally in Mount Dora, Fla., at 9 a.m. and attends a campaign event in Jacksonville at 1 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney delivers remarks at a small business in Jacksonville at 10:15 a.m.

  • Ron Paul has no public campaign events scheduled.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

Sign up here to receive the Morning Line in your inbox every morning.

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