TAMPA — Stagnant in the polls and under withering assault for flip-flopping, Republican Mitt Romney campaigned Tuesday in Tampa Bay and South Florida with a simple message: President Barack Obama has failed and he won't.
Romney, trying to sound more like Obama's general election rival rather than a candidate struggling to lock down the GOP nomination, avoided talking about hot-button social issues like immigration or the ever-shifting primary that could see Herman Cain drop out soon. Instead the former Massachusetts governor ignored reporters' questions and focused on the economy in a state with stubbornly high unemployment and home foreclosures and which could decide the nomination on Jan. 31.
"We have a president that doesn't understand the power of trade for enhancing American employment and American prosperity," Romney, with cargo ships behind him said, at the Port of Tampa, before heading to a $2,500 per-person fundraiser at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Continuing a pattern for campaign stops in Florida, Romney refused to answer any questions that might steer him away from his preferred message.
"There's not a press avail today. This is a chance to meet people,'' the candidate said, signing autographs and posing for pictures while aides insisted reporters keep their distance.
"I think President Obama's a nice guy. But I don't think he understands America. I don't think he understands our economy," Romney said at his first stop, family-owned Conchita Foods, near Hialeah.
Romney's Florida visit comes at a crucial time.
He's still massaging his message as Democrats join Republicans in swiping at him. Polls show his rivals could close in on him in New Hampshire — a state he expects to win. Cain's implosion is likely to strengthen them, not Romney. And surveys show that Florida Republicans are a lot like their national counterparts when it comes to Romney's campaign — they're unenthusiastic.
Romney has consistently failed to earn more than 25 percent from Republican primary voters across the country, but his status as the GOP establishment choice was clear Tuesday. He was flanked in Tampa by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, his state campaign chairman, and in Miami-Dade by U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
The popular Cuban-American leaders were instrumental in helping Romney's rival, John McCain, roll up huge numbers in Miami-Dade in 2008, and now support Romney.
But while the three are key to helping deliver votes, they also stand as a testament to some of the uncomfortable questions Romney faces over immigration. They backed the pro-immigrant Dream Act, which Romney has bashed as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants because it provides some a pathway to citizenship.
All three acknowledged they disagree with Romney's hard-line immigration rhetoric. But they said he was the best candidate in the crowded field — though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a friend who has more consistently backed their immigration approach.
"When you analyze in depth all of the candidates' positions, there's not the difference that some of you in the media are pointing to," said Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "I differ with Gov. Romney on his approach and priorities with regard to immigration."
When asked about immigration, Mario Diaz-Balart echoed the same message: "Do I agree with 100 percent of his positions? No, I do not. Job No. 1 is to get this economy going again. … Even people who are here illegally can not get jobs in the United States."
Florida effectively ended Romney's 2008 campaign when he won 31 percent of the primary vote, behind John McCain's 36 percent, and the state could be crucial for him again this year, coming after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina weigh in.
Besides Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Cain, Romney is the only other candidate with signs of a professional campaign team in Florida, where mail-in voting will begin before Christmas. While national publicity and momentum from earlier contests will drive the Florida election, an organized campaign machine can be crucial in a state where at least half the votes are expected to be cast before election day.
"If you don't have a daily structure in place, constantly reminding people, constantly getting the word out and driving people to your candidate, you've got problems," said Arlene DiBenigno, a senior Cain adviser based in Tallahassee.
A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found Cain leading among Florida Republicans with 27 percent support, followed by Romney with 21 percent and Gingrich with 17. But Cain told campaign workers on a conference call Tuesday he was reassessing whether to stay in the race amid allegations — denied by Cain — that he had a 13-year extramarital affair with a Georgia woman.
Gingrich now appears to be the greater threat to Romney.
"Speaker Gingrich is a good man, but he and I have very different backgrounds," Romney said in a Fox News interview Tuesday. "He spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington. I spent my career in the private sector. I think that's what the country needs right now."
Romney clearly prefers to talk about taking on Obama and Democrats than the obstacles to winning the nomination.
Before he was whisked away from reporters in South Florida, Romney briefly responded to two Democratic National Committee Web ads that bash him for flip-flopping on immigration, taxes, gay rights and a host of other issues.
"I think it's quite a compliment that they tried to throw the primary to anybody but me," he said. "But you know what, I'm in a great position to take on the president. He does not want to face me. He does not want to face someone who can talk about the economy, who can talk about the failure of his record and who can create jobs for America like I can."
Still, Romney did bash Obama's health care law, which was partly based on Romney's proposal from Massachusetts. And he criticized cap-and-trade global-warming proposals, which he once favored.
"There is no perfect candidate," Ros-Lehtinen said after Romney's visit. "We have some disagreements about some things. But what's important is jobs."