Despite Perry’s Gains, Romney Remains Strong in Florida

BY Teresa Gorman  August 26, 2011 at 7:58 AM EST

RESTRICTIONS --- ON THIS IMAGE

Mitt Romney, shown here campaigning in New Hampshire, is still popular in Florida. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The Morning Line

This week saw Texas Gov. Rick Perry leapfrog Mitt Romney in the national polls, but the former governor of Massachusetts is still holding on strong in the key battleground state of Florida.

A new Sachs/Mason Dixon survey finds Romney leading all GOP hopefuls with 28 percent support in the Sunshine State, followed by Perry with 21 percent. The only other Republican candidate to break into double digits is Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 13 percent. (Bachmann launches a three-day campaign swing through Florida with a stop in Jacksonville Beach at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday.)

Romney also performs the best when it comes to a head-to-head matchup with President Obama, leading 51 to 43. Perry holds a narrow 46-to-45 advantage over the president in Florida, while Bachmann trails Mr. Obama by two points, 46 to 44.

The most disconcerting number for the president at this stage of the race has to be his job approval rating in Florida, which is just 41 percent, compared to 56 percent who disapprove (including 55 percent of independents). The last time the survey was taken in April, 51 percent of Floridians disapproved of the president’s job performance, but he still led Romney in a hypothetical contest.

The campaign for Florida has yet to really take off, as the GOP contenders have mostly been focusing on the first four states in the nominating process: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. (Although, as NBC’s “First Read” detailed Thursday, there’s a good chance the GOP primary calendar in 2012 could soon be thrown into chaos, with states such as Florida and Arizona considering pushing up their primary dates despite the risk of losing half their convention delegates and other penalties.)

September will be the month that Florida enters the spotlight, with a presidential debate set for Sept. 22 in Orlando. Most of the Republican candidates are also expected to address the inaugural regional Conservative Political Action Conference, which is set to take place in Orlando the following day.

By then we could know whether Florida has decided to buck the Republican Party calendar and hold its primary before March 6, 2012 (Oct. 1 is the official deadline for changing the date). The state moved its primary up in 2008 (and was punished by the party), but the Republican candidates still waged a fight for the state, with eventual nominee John McCain scoring an important victory there.

Given that Florida will again likely be a critical piece of the 270 electoral vote puzzle next November, it’s hard to see the GOP contenders staying away this time, regardless of the date the state selects for its primary.

HUNTSMAN: I CAN WIN IN 2012

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman spoke with our Jeffrey Brown on Thursday about his ideas on tax policy, foreign policy and the other candidates in the race.

You can watch the full interview here.

Huntsman doubled down on his unofficial campaign theme that he is a relatively more moderate Republican than everyone else in the field and is therefore the most electable in November 2012. He also didn’t shy away from criticizing the more conservative candidates in the race, who also happen to be trouncing him in early polling.

In this exchange, Huntsman directly addressed the more controversial statements made by Perry and Bachmann:

Well, I was (chuckles) … answering questions about a response on Ben Bernanke being treasonous, which I think was inappropriate, and I think it was not based on the reality of the situation. Nor do I think it is reflective of the kind of person that people would look to seriously as a presidential candidate. And when people talk about $2 gas prices, that just simply is not reflecting the reality of the marketplace.

So when asked about these questions, I’m just going to give an answer that I think reflects reality. That’s the world I live. And I try to … see these things based upon the real world and where we are and what it means in terms of the real-world application of certain decisions. That’s why I stood alone on that stage on the debt ceiling debate, when every single one of my competitors was basically saying let the nation default. I stood and said 25 percent of the world’s GDP can’t default; it would so disrupt the marketplace. We still set the rhythm for the international financial marketplace. You can’t default for the first time ever in the history of our country. You’ve got to find a solution that allows us to keep going, allows the marketplace to remain predictable and safe and not destroy people’s 401(k)s and their retirement programs through the idea that we can just kind of let the country go off a cliff and default.

Huntsman also said he would call on all Americans, including the wealthy, to sacrifice in order to fix the country’s fiscal problems, but he did not endorse any kind of tax increase. He suggested that he would limit social program benefits for the wealthy in order to save money.

He also weighed in on the extension of the payroll tax:

JEFFREY BROWN: One specific, current issue is the question of the extension of the payroll tax cuts. Now, these cuts were made last year to try to get more money into the pockets of working people. They’re due to end in January, and there is a question of whether they should be extended. A number of Republicans have suggested that that’s not a priority. Where do you come down?

JON HUNTSMAN: I think the payroll tax cut is a good thing. I think it helps a whole lot of people, and I think it’s something that would serve to stimulate this economy going forward. So it’s something I would –

JEFFREY BROWN: So it should be extended.

JON HUNTSMAN: I would consider extending it.

Many Congressional Republicans have argued against this extension, while President Obama favors it.

Huntsman, while making an appeal to the center, has a long, long way to go before he’s considered a viable contender in a Republican primary dominated by conservatives, and most recently, Perry. Huntsman usually occupies the bottom of most GOP primary polls with single-digit support.

PATAKI TAKES A PASS

The GOP presidential field may still welcome additional candidates, but former three-term New York Gov. George Pataki will not be among them.

CNN’s Mark Preston has the details from a source close to Pataki:

“Pataki, who had been flirting with a White House bid for months, was scheduled to appear this weekend in the key early voting state of Iowa.

“Speculation was that the former three-term governor would announce his candidacy Saturday at the Polk County Republican fundraiser.

“But the source said that Pataki, who seriously considered running, has decided instead to forgo a run for the GOP nomination.”

Pataki has flirted with possible bids in the past, but given his moderate record (especially on social issues), he likely would have faced a good deal of skepticism from the party’s conservative base, which plays an influential role in deciding nomination fights.

MEMORIAL POSTPONED

The pending arrival of Hurricane Irene in the Washington, D.C., area has postponed the Sunday dedication ceremonies for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial located on the National Mall.

The massive storm will hit a large section of the East Coast this weekend, including North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New York.

USA Today reports:

“(Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project) Foundation CEO Harry Johnson said he made the decision due to safety concerns, USA TODAY staffer Melanie Eversley reports. Johnson said Saturday’s prayer service will be last event this weekend. The dedication will be rescheduled for sometime in September or October.”

President Obama was scheduled to speak at the event.

National Public Radio has this story from David Greene about the new memorial and how young people are learning about the civil rights leader through visiting it.

LABOR DAY

While the holiday is more than a week away, the Morning Line will be on hiatus all of next week and Labor Day itself, returning Tuesday, Sept. 6. To all our loyal East Coast readers in the path of Hurricane Irene, stay safe this weekend.

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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