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Romney leads in Fla., but obstacles loom large

Campaign heeds lessons learned in 2008 failure

Mitt Romney spoke at a rally in St. Petersburg in 2008. A few weeks ago, his campaign thought it had everything in its favor in Florida, but Newt Gingrich has surged in popularity. Alex Wong/Getty Images/File/Getty

MIAMI - Florida’s voters effectively ended Mitt Romney’s presidential dream four years ago. He won in only about one-third of the 67 counties, gained the support of only 9 percent of Cuban Americans, rejected advice from local advisers, and misplayed the ideological landscape.

Now the political battlefield, the issues, and the competition are different - but the stakes in Tuesday’s vote are even higher as the one-time front-runner battles to regain his primacy against the candidate who has emerged as his chief challenger, Newt Gingrich. After Romney was sent reeling by Gingrich’s victory a week ago in South Carolina, he has used a barrage of attacks in debates and television commercials to pull ahead in several recent Florida polls.


In order to win, analysts said, Romney must find a way to pick up support in what are considered several states within the state. There are swaths of traditionally conservative areas that may be most hospitable to Gingrich; condos filled with snowbirds from the north and Midwest that could be tilted to Romney; economically distressed suburbs and cities along the state’s midsection that are up for grabs; and a Hispanic community that is diverse and divided.

Until just a few weeks ago, Romney’s team thought it had everything in its favor in Florida. Romney had spent millions of dollars on television campaign ads, versus nearly nothing from Gingrich. But Gingrich’s 11th-hour support from a pro-Gingrich super PAC and his own recent fund-raising success may have cut into that advantage.

“Governor Romney thought all he had to do is hang in there, but the primary voters want to be in the race,’’ said Ann Herberger, who ran Romney’s Florida finance operation in 2008 and is unaligned this time.

The result is that Romney and Gingrich go into Tuesday’s primary on a more even playing field than either anticipated, with Rick Santorum striving to hang on and Ron Paul mostly focusing elsewhere. Romney now hopes his early advantage in organization and money, an expected edge among absentee ballots cast before Gingrich won South Carolina, and his forceful debate performance Thursday will give him an advantage.


Brett Doster, the senior adviser of Romney’s Florida operation, said in an interview that the campaign has worked for months to gear messages to the diverse constituencies of the state. “We have the right message and the right kind of organization to take Mitt Romney’s message to every corner of Florida,’’ Doster said in an interview.

Yet Romney’s second-place finish in Florida in 2008 demonstrates how large his challenge may be. Romney lost by a 36-to-31-percent margin to Senator John McCain of Arizona and dropped out of the race after a lackluster showing in primaries held a week later. His top Florida advisers complained later that they had been ordered by Boston strategists to write seven campaign plans and that their suggestions on how to spend money had been rejected by the Boston team. Romney’s strongest areas then were around Jacksonville, in counties north of Orlando, and along affluent sections of the Gulf coast. But he lost by nearly 2-to-1 margins in much of southern Florida and trailed even farther behind in some counties bordering Georgia, where his state team had wanted more money to be spent. He picked up only 14 percent of the Hispanic vote, including just 9 percent of the Cuban-American vote, according to exit polls.


For Gingrich, the political landscape presents some unique opportunities. Gingrich hopes to win easily in rural areas and in the Panhandle that borders Georgia and Alabama, as well as among Tea Party movement members and working-class voters in cities and suburbs that have been hard hit economically.

Unlike four years ago, when the focus was on foreign policy, terrorism, and social issues, this election is mostly about economic concerns in a state with a 9.9 percent unemployment rate and a high number of home foreclosures.

Much of the pro-Gingrich super PAC’s money is being spent to convince Floridians that Gingrich is the true conservative in the race while trying to persuade the Republican Party base that Romney is too moderate. That is the inverse of the challenge Romney faced in 2008. In that campaign, Romney’s strategy was to win over conservatives and hope that two key rivals, Senator John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, split the more moderate vote. The strategy failed when Giuliani’s campaign disintegrated and Mike Huckabee drew away some of the conservative vote that Romney was counting on.

“In 2008, Romney faced two moderate Republicans, and this time he is facing a real conservative,’’ Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich spokesman who is overseeing the pro-Gingrich super PAC, said in an interview.

At the same time, analysts said, the Gingrich campaign has positioned itself slightly to the left of Romney on issues that are important to key groups of Floridians, including Medicare and immigration. On other issues, such as Gingrich’s proposal to build a colony on the moon, Romney has accused him of pandering to state interests.


“Gingrich has been extremely attentive to the push-button issues among various groups,’’ said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Tyler put it more bluntly: “You would have to be an idiot if you are running for president and not be aware of the state’s concerns.’’

For example, Gingrich courted senior citizens in the debate last Monday when he boasted about his role pushing for passage of a Medicare program that helped senior citizens buy prescription drugs, known as Part D. “I’ll say this in Florida: I’m proud of the fact that I publicly, openly advocated Medicare Part D. It has saved lives,’’ Gingrich said. About 3.3 million of Florida’s 18.5 million residents are enrolled in Medicare.

But some conservatives have said the prescription drug program was a mistake, in part because Congress didn’t provide for a way to pay for it and it has bloated the deficit. Romney called Gingrich’s support of the prescription plan “influence peddling’’ because he was working for health companies at the time, and Romney has been critical of the cost of the program.

Romney and Gingrich are also vying for the votes of Hispanics, who make up about 11 percent of registered Republicans. A poll by Latino Decisions released last week showed that Romney is making progress compared to four years ago; he led among Hispanic Republicans by a 49-to-26-percent margin over Gingrich.


Romney also must convince voters he is a true conservative. In 2008, he was the winner among Florida voters who said in polls that they were “very conservative.’’ But this time, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all seek such votes. A potential problem for Romney is that independents, who typically are more moderate than registered Republicans, cannot vote under Florida’s rules.

The contest could be determined by a factor that didn’t exist in 2008: the Tea Party movement. Romney, who has run as a Washington outsider even though he is embraced by much of the Republican establishment, has kept a wary eye on the antiestablishment Tea Party. Gingrich, even though he was an insider as speaker of the House and consultant to Freddie Mac, has run as an outsider who embraces the Tea Party message.

Florida voters in 2010 rejected a moderate Republican candidate for governor, Bill McCollum, and elected Tea Party favorite Rick Scott of the GOP. But Scott’s success provides a mixed message for the Republican presidential candidates. He is both a very wealthy former businessman, like Romney, and a fiery grass-roots candidate, like Gingrich. Scott - like other key players such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, former governor - has remained neutral in the race, underscoring the uncertainty that voters must resolve on Tuesday.

Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish