For some reason in modern politics, it always seems to come down to Florida. It is an irresistible destination. The northern panhandle is a sweet piece of the South. The I-4 corridor — where half the state’s registered Republican voters live — slashes the state in half east to west, along the way connecting the two huge media markets of Tampa and Orlando. The east and west coasts are home to vast swaths of northeastern retirees, including a robust and engaged Jewish population. And the southern tip is the landing spot for Cubans, Haitians and Puerto Ricans, none easily categorized as Republican or Democrats.
Mix all that together, and you have the state that gave us the most bitterly contested presidential count in American history. It is also a place where three divergent and divisive issues — the housing market collapse, entitlement spending and immigration — could combine into a single toxic political stew, especially in November.
So, as Florida Republicans head to the polls, here is what I will be watching for. Call them the five M’s.
1. Margin | It’s not for nothing that Newt Gingrich complained that he was “carpet bombed” with negative television advertising during the week after Mitt Romney lost South Carolina. He was. Romney wanted to not only win in Florida, but to do it decisively. (“Politics ain’t beanbags,” he said awkwardly but accurately.) Closing polls showed him leading by double digits. The Romney plan was to finally regain the inevitability mojo lost after the Palmetto State drubbing. Winning by a lot can go a long way to regain the upper hand in a primary season that, after all, has only been underway for four weeks. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, the other two Republicans left standing, scampered away to seek political survival elsewhere.
2. Money | See “carpet bombing” above. By all accounts, Romney and his allies have outspent Gingrich four to one in Florida, reminding voters in high-decibel television ads of Gingrich’s shortcomings –real and exaggerated. The goal was to outspend Gingrich, but also to annoy him enough to knock him off his game on the more even playing field of free media — where the former House Speaker seized the edge in debates. Expect the final spending — by the candidates and by the outside groups supporting them — to surpass the numbers we have seen so far. They always do.
3. Momentum | Until now, a different candidate has won every primary — Santorum, belatedly declared, in Iowa; Romney in New Hampshire; and Gingrich in South Carolina. It’s hard to make the electability claim to Republicans waiting their turn to vote if you have not been able to rack up a consistent ability to win. Having two victories in one’s pocket makes it much easier to make the case in the next round.
4. Mitt | How good a candidate is he? If Romney wins going away in Florida, it will be harder for his detractors to argue that he is not tough enough to take on President Obama in debates or on the stump. There is a reason the Obama reelection campaign has never taken its eyes off the former Massachusetts governor. Obama’s 2008 win was a political aberration. It really does help to have run before.
5. Moon colonies | How much damage did Gingrich’s big ideas do? He appeared poised to build a head of supportive steam among Florida’s conservative voters until he began to play into the narrative the Romney campaign created for him. When the small government conservative began enthusiastically promoting his big government pet project of creating an American colony on the moon, he seemed at the least off point, and at most off kilter. Will exit polls show it to be a self-inflicted wound?
The answers to all of these questions could well determine whether Romney hits cruise control, or whether Gingrich is able to rebound and stage hand-to-hand combat all the way to the nominating convention. Which will be held in — you guessed it — Florida.
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.