Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

RNC Tampa 2012
Follow local preparations and national politics

The road to Tampa | GOP debate 9 tonight at USF in Tampa

Florida up for grabs in GOP presidential race

Three states. Three winners. A divided delegate count. If there is one clarity in the unpredictable, captivating turns of the Republican presidential race, it is this: Anything can happen and Florida, which is next to vote, is wide open.

Newt Gingrich will drop into Tampa for a rally this afternoon flush with energy from his overwhelming win in South Carolina. Tonight, also in Tampa, he'll appear in another nationally televised debate, a forum he masterfully used to win over Palmetto State voters.

"Whether it's a ball game or a political race, momentum counts. And Gingrich has it," said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is not affiliated with a candidate.

In the eight days before the Jan. 31 primary, Gingrich's momentum will have to reckon with Mitt Romney's organizational strength on a playing field that is bigger, more diverse and more expensive than the first three primary states combined.

As Gingrich and Romney focused on each other Sunday, Rick Santorum swept into Florida first and cast himself as the true conservative. The late-declared winner of the Iowa caucuses faces bigger challenges but, as of now, no candidate is close to securing the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Think of Florida as hitting reset on a more focused Republican contest. It could be the beginning of a long, tough haul.

"I need you guys to go out and work," Romney urged his supporters at a rally Sunday evening in Ormond Beach. He displayed a tougher approach to his rival by linking Gingrich's well-paid work with Freddie Mac to the housing bust that has been felt hard in Florida.

Romney plans to press his organizational advantages in a state that only a couple of weeks ago appeared to be where he could wrap up the nomination.

"I am confident our organization and our early advertising here will more than compensate for that momentum boost," said Brett Doster, a Romney strategist in Florida.

Romney, who stumbled over questions of his wealth last week, wants to refocus his campaign on the economy and has a roundtable discussion on housing issues in Tampa at 8 a.m. today.

His surrogates were already working to sow doubts about Gingrich as a drag on the ticket.

"There are potential down-ballot implications with a candidate like Gingrich, who is so well defined with Republicans and Democrats, someone who has such a big gender-gap problem, someone who reminds everybody of the 1990s — and not necessarily in a flattering way," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The Florida focus began on Sunday morning TV. Romney announced on Fox News Sunday that he would release his 2010 tax return and an estimate of his 2011 return on Tuesday, and said his reluctance to release them was a "mistake."

"We'll put them on the website and you can go through the pages," Romney said. "I think we just made a mistake holding off as long as we did. If it was a distraction, we want to get back to the real issues in the campaign."

In the interview, Romney questioned Gingrich's record and whether he was too volatile: "He's not as reliable a conservative leader as some people might imagine."

Gingrich, who appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, shook it off. "The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination," he said. "We are going to demand real change in Washington."

And then there was Santorum, who came in third in South Carolina but was first to campaign in Florida on Sunday. He criticized Gingrich as too erratic, and Romney as not conservative enough.

"Florida can now step back and say, 'Okay, who do we want? Who is the candidate that we should, here in Florida, put our stamp of approval on?' " Santorum said in Cape Coral.

At the moment, it's a race between Gingrich and Romney, a struggle between momentum and organization. Romney still has the advantage.

He is well known to Florida voters, having come in second to John McCain in the 2008 primary and visiting the state often since then, even before declaring himself a candidate. He has the backing of some of the state's most influential Republicans.

Romney's Florida volunteers began knocking on doors in September. The campaign and its allies have been on TV for weeks, spending $7 million so far, including $4 million attacking Gingrich.

As many as 200,000 people are estimated to have cast ballots already in Florida. Still, that is only about 10 percent of the overall number of voters who turned out in the 2008 primary.

Gingrich, during his victory speech Saturday, seemed to underscore his weaknesses by asking the crowd to reach out to people in Florida. But campaign officials in the state said the ground game is more solid than it appears. There are chairs in all 67 counties and 5,000 volunteers on the ground.

"I'd rather them underestimate our abilities. But we're working hard. We're targeting these voters," said Florida state director Jose Mallea. He said phone banking has targeted absentee and early voters, which Romney has aggressively courted.

Gingrich has seen donations pour in since Saturday, announcing midday Sunday that he had exceeded a $1 million goal for a "knockout punch in Florida."

Gingrich, Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul, who is bypassing Florida to focus on other states, will appear tonight in the debate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100.

While Romney benefitted from steady debate performances early on, the field has narrowed and Gingrich's antimedia, populist anger has been to his advantage.

A second Florida debate comes Thursday in Jacksonville.

"Any time you turn Newt loose he is capable of either coming out like he did in South Carolina or screwing up so bad he can't ever get it back," said Tom Slade, former head of the Republican Party of Florida. "I've never looked forward to a time in politics as exciting as this is now and it's all about Newt."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Miami Herald reporter Clark Spencer contributed to this report, which includes information from McClatchy Newspapers.

Florida presidential primary

tracker for today

Mitt Romney: Tampa, 8 a.m., housing roundtable at Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk.

Newt Gingrich: Tampa, 2 p.m., rally at the River Church.

Rick Santorum: North Venice, 10 a.m., tour PGT Manufacturing. Lady Lake, 1:30 p.m., "Faith, Family and Freedom" town hall.

GOP debate: Tampa, 9 p.m., Gingrich, Ron Paul, Romney, Santorum. Watch it live on NBC or

Florida up for grabs in GOP presidential race 01/22/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 7:50am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Peter Budaj, Lightning lose to Devils in shootout; Nikita Kucherov scores

    Lightning Strikes

    NEWARK, N.J. — For Peter Budaj, Tuesday's season debut had a shaky start.

    The Lightning’s Vladislav Namestnikov, right, battles Damon Severson for the puck.
  2. Mother's testimony about toddler's death brings judge to tears


    TAMPA — Nayashia Williams woke up early on May 7, 2014, to the sound of her daughter calling for her. It was the last time the young mother's mornings would begin with a summons from Myla Presley, who couldn't yet climb over the mesh fencing around the playpen she used as a bed.

    Deandre Gilmore looks towards the gallery Tuesday in a Tampa courtroom. Gilmore is accused of killing the 19 month-old daughter of his girlfriend in 2014. He said the child fell while he was giving her a bath. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  3. Speakers: Getting tough can't be only response to teen car thefts


    ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Dillinger remembers coming to Pinellas County as a legal intern in 1975. There were five major poverty zones in St. Petersburg.

    Wengay Newton, Florida House of Representatives (in front, in center), talks as a panelist to a packed room during a community forum on "Reclaiming our Youth: Is Juvenile Justice a Reality?" at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg Wednesday evening (10/17/17). The event was presented by the Fred G. Minnis, Sr. Bar Association. Community leaders discussed the ongoing auto theft epidemic among Pinellas youth.
  4. Internal White House documents allege manufacturing decline increases abortions, infertility and spousal abuse


    White House officials working on trade policy were alarmed last month when a top adviser to President Donald Trump circulated a two-page document that alleged a weakened manufacturing sector leads to an increase in abortion, spousal abuse, divorce and infertility, two people familiar with the matter told the …

  5. Black entrepreneur says city stiffing him on project after he endorsed Rick Baker


    ST. PETERSBURG — A prominent African-American resident says his endorsement of mayoral candidate Rick Baker has led city officials to freeze him out of a major construction project along the historic "Deuces" stretch of 22nd Street S.