1. Florida Politics

Mitt Romney pads advantage in Florida with aggressive early voting effort


Mitt Romney was spilling with confidence as he stepped onto a stage here Monday and said, "With a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow, what do you think?"

But when polls open at 7 a.m. for Florida's Republican presidential primary, many in the crowd will take the day off.

They have voted already, some weeks ago, among hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have turned in absentee ballots or went to the polls early. Nearly 40 percent of all votes may be in before today.

No candidate has pursued these riches more than Romney, who used his vast resources to inform voters about early options and keep on them until they followed through.

The padding he built up — a stream of polls in recent days show Romney up by an average of 12.5 points — has made Newt Gingrich's struggle that much harder.

"He's got the bases covered," said Joan Savage, 75, of Palm Harbor who attended the rally in downtown Dunedin but had already cast her vote for Romney. A walk through the thick crowd indicated she was not alone.

"I voted for him three weeks ago," said Rae Tooley, a retiree from Clearwater, adding that she got several calls from the Romney campaign encouraging her to turn in her ballot. "We need a good man with principles in the Oval Office."

By Monday, 603,459 early and absentee votes had been cast across Florida, about 100,000 above the 2008 primary. Overall turnout could be lower than 2008 because there was a property tax cut on ballot that was pushed hard by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Romney's campaign started the effort in December, when the state made a list of absentee requests available. Those people were contacted through mail and by phone, and invited to participate in one of four "tele-town halls" with the candidate.

Some voters got knocks on their doors reminding them to turn in ballots. The campaign also held events outside early-voting sites.

"It was a major part of our game plan," said spokesman Ryan Williams. "We're going to keep that operation in place so that we can go toe-to-toe with President Barack Obama's formidable political machine."

Gingrich's campaign says it has targeted early voting, too, but he got a later start in Florida and has lacked the financial resources to match Romney.

A Republican voter in Tallahassee said this week that he got a Gingrich mail piece 20 days after requesting an absentee ballot, while Romney mail started flowing almost immediately. Gingrich was too late; the voter had already returned his ballot.

Gingrich was still hoping Monday that he could turn in a strong performance at the polls.

"We really need your help," he implored a crowd of a few hundred in Tampa. "We need you on Facebook, we need you Twittering if that's what you do, we need you with email, we need you calling people, and I know many of you have been calling."

Gingrich touched on an array of topics: the Keystone pipeline project, an embassy in Jerusalem, the use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. He called the health care law, which has drawn the wrath of Catholic bishops for its birth-control provisions, "an attack on religion."

The crowd waited nearly two hours before Gingrich arrived late but were greeted by Michael Reagan, son of the late president, and former candidate Herman Cain. Reagan defended Gingrich's credentials as an ally of Ronald Reagan.

"I've known Newt for a long period of time in my life," the son said. "And I've kind of been taken aback by what some people say about Newt, that he wasn't there. And I think to myself, the people who are saying he wasn't there . . . weren't there."

Cain told the crowd to remember that Gingrich had also trailed in the South Carolina primary, which he ultimately won. He invoked the name of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and challenged them to "crank it up a notch" to get out the vote.

"There are a lot of undecided voters right here in Florida, just like there were a lot of undecided voters in South Carolina, just like there are a lot of undecided voters across this country, and over the next several months, you and I are going to help those undecided voters decide on Newt Gingrich," Cain said.

Betty McConkey, 67, a former Cain supporter from Wesley Chapel, was among the undecided voters who showed up to hear Gingrich. She felt a little conflicted because she also admires Mike Huckabee, and she had heard that he supported Rick Santorum. She wasn't sure what Gingrich would need to say to get her vote.

The issue that comes first in her mind? "Putting Americans to work," she said. Then she added, "I said Americans."

Theresa Johnson, 72, a retired bookkeeper who lives in the Clearwater area, said she thinks Gingrich is the only candidate who can beat President Barack Obama. She laments that so many people voted early by absentee ballot.

Some did it even before the South Carolina debate, she said. How could they have made up their minds so early?

Many had in Dunedin. But Romney, too, was leaving nothing to chance. Despite his confidence, he turned immediately to Gingrich.

"He's not feeling very excited these days," Romney mocked. "I know, it's sad. He's been flailing around, trying to go after me for one thing or another. You just watch him and you shake your head. He's been kind of painfully revealing to watch. I think the reason he isn't doing so well is because of those last two debates."

Romney and his allies have buried Gingrich in ads in Florida, airing nearly 13,000 ads on broadcast television through Wednesday, according to an analysis of Kantar Media data by the Wesleyan Media Project. On Gingrich's side: 200 spots.

Democrats circulated the study Monday, seeking to frame Romney's expected victory as one earned through money, not message.

The two other candidates vying for the nomination, Santorum and Ron Paul, did not campaign in Florida on Monday.

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.