Florida is not South Carolina, and neither is it Iowa or New Hampshire, and the pundits rushing to early judgment about the likely result of next Tuesday's primary in the Sunshine State should take a deep breath and calm down. Such was the advice offered by Florida GOP activist Sarah Rumpf yesterday, and I feel obligated to share her advice with people whose knowledge of Florida politics is less direct and extensive than hers.
"These people in New York and D.C. are looking at it from 30,000 feet up in the air and you can't do that," Rumpf said. Currently involved in Republican Adam Hasner's Senate campaign and not allied with any of the remaining GOP presidential contenders, Rumpf was an early supporter of Marco Rubio's successful challenge of former Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primary, a crucial battle for the Tea Party movement.
Rumpf called me Monday to warn against underestimating the strength of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign organization in Florida. Romney endorsed Rubio in 2010 and campaigned with him, garnering respect from Tea Party activists and also from the Cuban-American community that is an important GOP constituency in South Florida. Furthermore, Rumpf said, Romney has a large staff of experienced Florida operatives who have been working in the state for months, and have been especially active in pushing Romney's supporters to submit early absentee votes, a process that began over the weekend. Most of all, Romney has a vast funding advantage which allows him to advertise heavily in Florida's expensive TV marketplace. Monday, the Romney campaign rolled out a new ad attacking former House Speaker Gingrich: "While Florida families struggled during the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in while working for Freddie Mac."
In Monday's debate televised by NBC, Romney doubled down on Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, a federally funded enterprise implicated in the meltdown of the home mortgage industry. "Freddie Mac was paying Gingrich $1.6 million while taking money from the American people," he said. Romney also hit Gingrich's support for Medicare prescription drug benefits, an attack that prompted Gingrich to accuse Romney of "walking around this state saying things that aren't true." But Romney came back hard, saying that Gingrich's consulting clients benefitted from his advocacy: "You could call it whatever you like; I call it influence peddling."
Those trying to figure out who won the frequent clashes between Romney and Gingrich during Monday's debate were deprived of the evidence provided by audience applause, which NBC moderator Brian Williams prohibited from the start. And pundits face similar problems attempting to prognosticate the result of next week's primary. Both Gingrich's supporters and his enemies appear to have over-interpreted his South Carolina victory. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post seemingly succumbed to abject panic, warning that Gingrich is "perhaps the only GOP candidate who could shift the spotlight from President Obama to himself, alienate virtually all independent voters, lose more than 40 states and put the House majority in jeopardy." This is a genuine and widely shared concern among Republicans, that Gingrich's controversial past and "grandiose" tendencies might prevent the election the party wants -- a referendum on Obama's first term.
Yet Rubin's "open letter" to GOP leaders including Haley Barbour, Jim DeMint, and Mitch Daniels, demanding that they either jump into the presidential race themselves or else "collectively get behind a not-Gingrich candidate," was a premature warning about an emergency that has not yet arisen and may never arise. Gingrich is a Southern conservative, and Republican voters in South Carolina clearly shared his "mad as hell" attitude, rejecting Romney, whom Gingrich repeatedly called a "Massachusetts moderate." The polls showing a Sunshine State surge for Gingrich need to be seen in the context of a remarkably volatile Republican electorate, which has repeatedly jumped from one frontrunner's bandwagon to another over the past several months. In a Rasmussen poll taken Jan. 11 -- the day after the New Hampshire primary -- Romney led in Florida by 22 points; in Rasmussen's poll taken Sunday, Gingrich led by nine points, a 31-point swing in less than two weeks. But Florida is not South Carolina, and Gingrich's ability to sustain his post-Carolina momentum cannot be extrapolated from polls taken more than a week ahead of the Jan. 21 primary.
Rubin's evident panic over Gingrich's surge is as unnecessary as the demands from Gingrich's advocates that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum quit the race in order to consolidate conservative opposition to Romney. Gingrich's South Carolina win destroyed the "inevitability" argument that might have permitted Romney to score an early knockout in the 2012 campaign. Whatever the outcome in Florida, the battle for the GOP nomination will continue at least through "Super Tuesday" on March 6, and perhaps well into April. The stakes in Florida are much higher for Romney than for any of his opponents. If Romney loses Florida, the media will begin comparing him to Ed Muskie, the 1972 favorite of the Democrat Party establishment whose campaign unexpectedly fell apart, handing the nomination to anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern. But even if Romney's organizational advantages help him recover to gain a narrow win next Tuesday in the Sunshine State, he will still be seen as very vulnerable heading into the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses, where Texas Rep. Ron Paul's fanatical supporters are hoping for an upset victory.
Some Republicans expect Gingrich's surge to carry the former House Speaker to victory in Florida, but playing the expectations game has been a high-risk endeavor in this year's campaign. Last week, a member of Romney's staff told me that they had initially expected former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to be one of their most formidable foes, but Pawlenty was the first candidate to quit the race. Many conservatives expected Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be Romney's strongest rival, yet Perry's status as frontrunner lasted barely a month and he dropped out before the primary in South Carolina, which had originally been his must-win "firewall" state. Almost no one expected Santorum to be among the Final Four contenders for the nomination, yet he won the Iowa caucuses and remains resolved to keep fighting despite the formidable odds against him.
A desire to hurry up the Republican nominating process was one of the motives that inspired Florida GOP leaders to leapfrog their primary from March to January (see "Why Does Florida Hate America?" Sept. 30), thus scrambling the entire campaign calendar. But one rather famous Floridian said Monday he is content to let the process play out: "We're nowhere near being over here. I don't subscribe to conventional wisdom, and neither should you."
Who said that? Palm Beach resident Rush Limbaugh. And, as usual, Rush is right.