Florida up for grabs in GOP presidential race

Ron Paul, who is bypassing Florida to focus on other states, will still appear tonight at the debate in Tampa.
Ron Paul, who is bypassing Florida to focus on other states, will still appear tonight at the debate in Tampa.
Published Jan. 23, 2012

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.