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Despite Gingrich's surge, Romney's still favored among Florida political pros

Newt Gingrich may be riding a wave of momentum three weeks before voting starts in Florida, but among the state's political pros, Mitt Romney remains the heavy favorite to win the Jan. 31 primary, according to our latest Florida Insider Poll.

The average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics has Gingrich leading Romney among Florida Republicans by 22 percentage points, 43 percent to 21 percent. Still, more than 6 in 10 of the nearly 100 veteran Florida politicos who participated in our poll predicted Romney will win Florida's primary, while slightly more than one third predicted Gingrich. Among Republicans, more than three out of four expect Romney will win Florida and just 14 percent predict Gingrich.

Romney, of course, is the establishment's preferred candidate and our Florida Insider Poll tends to be dominated by party establishment types — fundraisers, campaign professionals, lobbyists, quite a few of whom are helping or working for Romney. More than two thirds of respondents said Romney is the strongest candidate to take on President Barack Obama, while 24 percent said Jon Huntsman, and just 5 percent said Gingrich.

Republicans were only slightly more impressed with Gingrich's general election potential, with 62 percent pegging Romney as the strongest candidate, 20 percent saying Huntsman, and 10 percent Gingrich.

This week's Insiders included 50 Republicans, 42 Democrats, and six independents. They are listed at blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

Eyes on the Rays

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is careful to say he has no intention of meddling with St. Petersburg's contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. But in a Political Connections interview airing today on Bay News 9 his enthusiasm for the prospect of the Rays in downtown Tampa was crystal clear, as he spoke of a potential "divorce" between the Rays and St. Petersburg.

"We need to be prepared if that happens to be able to make the case not only to the voters in this community but also to the business community that this is a regional asset, the Rays, that we need to keep. And if that is the case, which I think it is, what is the best location for it. I happen to think it's in downtown Tampa," Buckhorn said.

On St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster: "He's got $90 million in debt outstanding on that stadium. He is going to have to be made whole on that before these discussions can move forward."

Buckhorn, a Democrat who supports Obama, also had an interesting take on how aggressively he may campaign for the president's re-election: "I need my president to be successful. We've got grant applications up there in Washington, D.C., right now to help build the Riverwalk. I'm hopeful he will be supportive of what we're trying to do here and if that's the case then I will be supportive of him."

Political Connections airs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Gingrich (finally) staffing up

Veteran political strategist Jamie Miller will be helping lead Gingrich's Florida campaign. A former political director and director of field operations for the state GOP, the Sarasota-based Miller has worked on a host of Florida campaigns. Perhaps most notably, he managed Katherine Harris' U.S. Senate campaign, a job he would probably prefer us not to mention.

Please, play nice

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack may be well ahead in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, but hardly a day goes by without rivals Adam Hasner or George LeMieux slamming the Fort Myers Republican as a creature of Washington who used to love earmarks and Charlie Crist but loathes tough anti-immigration laws.

No question the Senate underdogs need to raise doubts about Mack if they have any shot at overcoming the name recognition Mack inherited from his father, the former senator. But eight months of attacks could take a serious toll on Mack or whoever wins the GOP nomination in August when it comes time to focus on incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, who will be flush with campaign money.

That danger is not lost on Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry.

"Given Bill Nelson's lockstep support for Obama's liberal agenda, I trust that the Republicans in the U.S. Senate race will tell us more about their plan to defeat Nelson and how they will govern," Curry told Buzz when asked about the tenor of the Senate primary. "When I see Republican versus Republican messages, I recall Ronald Reagan's Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. Florida Republicans share a commitment to balanced budgets, reduced spending, and getting Florida back to work. It is important for our candidates to spend their time communicating this message for victory in 2012."

Curry is sending a clear message to the Republican Senate candidates. The likelihood they heed it? A lot less clear.

Election countdown

Days before Florida mails military overseas ballots: Five.

Days before Florida elections offices mail absentee ballots: 16.

Days before the Iowa caucuses: 23.

Days before New Hampshire's primary: 30.

Days before South Carolina's primary: 41.

Day before Florida's primary: 51.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Winner of the week

Pam Bondi. Florida's attorney general earned strong reviews helping moderate a presidential debate on the Huckabee show last weekend; she, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and CFO Jeff Atwater helped fuel momentum against destination resort casinos; and she showed off her wit during a Daily Show stunt asking Tallahassee leaders to take urine tests: Bondi happily handed over a sample (of apple juice).

Loser of the week

Rick Scott. Even when he embraces a popular idea like ramping up education funding in Florida, America's most unpopular governor (who recommended big education cuts last year) is almost universally viewed as insincere and pandering to improve his poll numbers.

Despite Gingrich's surge, Romney's still favored among Florida political pros 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 7:20pm]
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