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Romney reclaims lead as GOP slugs its way to Florida
With the Florida primary set for Tuesday, Mitt Romney has slugged his way back to the frontrunner spot as polls predict a decisive win over a still-determined Newt Gingrich. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a crucial vote in the Sunshine State.
Florida may be known for its laid-back vibe and tropical coastline, but an increasingly nasty battle is underway in the countdown to the state’s Republican primary on Tuesday.
Just over a week after Mitt Romney suffered a stinging loss against Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, the former Massachusetts governor is back with a vengeance, having fought his way to the top of Florida polls through several days of unremitting political attacks against his rival.
The fiery Gingrich, meanwhile, has cast himself as the grass-roots, anti-establishment candidate seeking to unite Tea Party sympathisers and religious conservatives against the big-budget campaign and party connections of the more mainstream Romney.
Florida, a crucial swing state that Obama won in 2008, has had a slower economic recovery than other parts of the US, and the Republican primary results will be carefully parsed in order to gauge the mood of voters there.
Florida’s demographics also differ strikingly from those of the states that have held Republican nominating contests thus far.
“There’s a much broader, more diverse range of Republican voters in Florida,” explained political scientist John Fortier of the DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “There are the conservative white evangelical voters in the northern part of the state, whereas the south is home to the Cuban community, as well as people who have moved from out of state, retirees, and senior citizens.”
Mild-mannered Romney goes on attack
Only days ago, Romney’s prospects for a victory in Florida were much shakier than now. But the candidate emerged from his defeat in South Carolina with an aggressive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink strategy to stem the rising threat from his number one rival to the Republican nomination.
After weeks of firing at Obama, Romney shifted his focus to Gingrich, bombarding the former Congressman with every tool at his disposal: advertisements, campaign speeches, debates, and appearances by high-profile “surrogates”, like 2008 Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain and actor Jon Voight.
Romney’s combative performances in two debates in Florida, however, have been largely credited for reclaiming the momentum from Gingrich after a stretch of unflattering press coverage surrounding the 15% tax rate the former governor paid on his multimillion dollar income.
In the most recent debate, Gingrich accused Romney of profiting off of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants created by the federal government and whose loaning practices are often blamed for widespread home foreclosures in states like Florida. But Romney shot back that Gingrich himself had similar investments in the companies, leaving the usually sharp-tongued candidate essentially speechless.
Romney’s campaign also spent considerable funds on mailings and TV ads emphasising Gingrich’s controversial tenure in the House of Representatives in order to dispel the notion that the former House speaker is a Washington outsider.
Helping Romney further was Gingrich’s notorious, self-proclaimed penchant for grandiose ideas, with the candidate vowing Wednesday to install a colony on the moon by 2020. Romney and his supporters pounced on the moon statement as evidence of Gingrich’s erratic nature, saying the ill-timed project would cost trillions of dollars.
Gingrich vows to stay the course
Despite his uncharacteristically sluggish recent debate performances and a series of polls showing Romney decisively ahead in Florida, Gingrich has pledged to fight on until the Republican convention.
Buoyed by an endorsement from scandal-plagued former frontrunner Herman Cain, as well as nation-wide Republican voter preference surveys that show him besting Romney, Gingrich has said he will “convert” a “non-Romney majority” of Republican voters into a “pro-Gingrich majority”.
He has suggested in recent appearances that if Rick Santorum were to drop out after what is predicted to be a weak showing in Florida, he could then woo Santorum’s supporters and take the lead as the sole populist alternative to Romney.
Yet according to prominent pundit Dr. Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, that scenario is unlikely.
“If Santorum withdraws, his support will split between Gingrich and Romney,” Sabato told FRANCE 24.
John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Centre also sees Gingrich’s path to the nomination as an uphill one -- especially if Romney wins Florida, as predicted.
“Even if Gingrich wins in some Southern states coming up, it will be hard for him to show that he’s consolidating support from enough different types of Republicans and different types of states to continue to the end,” Fortier assessed.
Nevertheless, Gingrich has been pushing back against Romney’s offensive, asking a gathering of supporters in Florida Monday morning, “Why would anybody in the establishment think that a Massachusetts moderate, which is a liberal by Republican standards....would be able to debate Barack Obama?”
The Obama campaign team’s spirits are undoubtedly lifted by that kind of internecine Republican swiping, with the president’s approval ratings seeing modest gains since primary season kicked off.
If Romney is the nominee, Dr. Sabato pointed out, “Obama can simply air the attacks on Romney in his TV ads in the fall, as the attacks have more credibility coming from Republicans”.
Fortier, however, used Obama’s own electoral history to counter the notion that he could significantly benefit from a knock-down, drag-out Romney-Gingrich slugfest.
“The long primary fight [between Obama and Hillary Clinton] in 2008 did not hurt Obama in the general election, so it shouldn’t really hurt Romney this time,” Fortier said. “In the long term, voters come home to their party.”