TAMPA -- This week Florida has been sunny, as usual. The Republican presidential nomination race has not. But by tomorrow Floridians can safely answer their phones again, sure in the knowledge that the caller won't be Mitt saying what a low-life Washington Insider lobbyist Newt is, or Newt calling to say what an anti-immigrant, job destroying robber-baron Mitt is. Floridians can also watch television again without seeing endless Democratic talking points masquerading as Republican ads.
Almost all of the telephone interruptions are robo-calls. So it does the person who has just gotten up from dinner to take one no good to say into the phone: "That may be true, Sunshine. But you should hear what he just said about you."
The Gingrich and Romney ads carry more charges against each other than it's possible for people who have lives to keep track of, let alone intelligently evaluate. Some of the charges are legitimate. One of these being why did Newt Gingrich loot Freddie Mac instead of working for its elimination? Others not so serious, or just false. Gingrich did not resign from Congress "in disgrace." Romney is not "anti-immigrant" (though Democrats will be happy to repeat this charge if Romney is the nominee). Nor is he a Massachusetts liberal. In the accusation derby here, Romney may have the advantage because he has outspent Gingrich by almost three to one.
Some of the charges have been downright trifling. Gingrich has even gigged Romney for hiring staffers who formerly worked for Charlie Crist, the former governor of Florida who went from RINO to independent while losing by 20 points to Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race and is expected to run for future offices as a Democrat. Of course Gingrich deserves any ridicule he gets for suggesting the Moon as the 51st state.
After the vote counting and the speechifying are over tonight -- and almost surely after a not-even-close win for Mitt Romney -- the Republican presidential road show decamps Florida for Nevada. It will be the turn of residents of Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, and Winnemucca to avoid their phones, at least until after this coming Saturday. That's when the Luck Be a Lady Tonight State holds its caucuses.
Beginning Wednesday things will also likely return to what passes for normal in Florida's hospital emergency rooms, which have been dealing with an epidemic of cases of whiplash and motion sickness on the part of Floridians trying to keep up with the polls on the Republican presidential contest. Who's on first has been a very fluid business here, as it was in South Carolina. In late November one reputable firm had Romney with a 30 point lead here.
After his South Carolina win, Newt surged to a double-digit lead in Florida. He fell way behind Romney again after a fractious debate in Jacksonville last Thursday and after a host of national Republicans made it clear they thought Newt at the top of the ticket would be a disaster for the party and a four-year ticket back to the White House for Barack O'Barnum. National polls this week show Romney competitive with O'Barnum in swing states, Newt losing big. In at least one poll Gingrich does worse nationally against O'Barnum than Ron Paul.
Most polls Monday put Romney about 15 points ahead of Gingrich in Florida, with only a day left for the Speaker to make up ground. Santorum and Paul trailed badly. Santorum has been drawing smaller crowds than the Tampa Bay Rays do when they play the Spokane Spiders on Tuesday night. As elsewhere, Ron Paul's supporters in Florida are intense, but thin on the ground compared to the Big Two.
Cranky, specious, or just plain silly charges aside, the candidates have had their lucid, even serious moments, both in the debates and on the campaign trail here. Florida is a big state (it has twice the population of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina put together), a swing state, and a state with political demographics (except for being somewhat older than the rest of the U.S.) very similar to those of the nation at large. Only Republicans can vote in the Florida Republican primary.
The Republican nomination race may well go on for months. But we'll have far better feel for the shape of it this Wednesday than we've had after the first three contests. Florida is not a boutique state. It's a smaller America with more heat and humidity than most places.
While, beginning Tuesday night, the pundits pick over the numbers that come out of Florida, the locals here will go back to answering their phones, and wish the best to Winnemucca.
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