NAPLES, Fla. — Mitt Romney’s midday rally here was over, but most of the estimated 2,000 Republicans who had come to see the Republican frontrunner were still milling around Sugden Plaza, many of them pushing toward the stage to shake hands with the candidate. Nearby, on the patio of McCabe’s Irish Pub at the corner of Fifth Avenue, one of Romney’s supporters sporting a “Mitt for President” button explained why she’s backing the former Massachusetts governor.
“I believe in what he wants to do and he’s Republican and a good man,” said the woman in gold hoop earrings, who gave her name only as Penny. A retiree originally from Illinois, Penny was asked her opinion of Romney’s chief opponent in Tuesday’s primary here, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know. I couldn’t say it.”
Reporters, analysts, and commentators have offered many explanations for Romney’s surging support in the Sunshine State. The New York Times devoted a 1,600-word article this weekend to examining Romney’s success in rebounding from a loss to Gingrich in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, attributing it to a strategic decision to have the mild-mannered Romney “drop his above-the-fray persona and carry the fight directly to his opponent.” Whatever the strategic secret, there is little doubt that it has worked. Romney, who trailed Gingrich by nine points in a Florida poll by Rasmussen taken Jan. 22, jumped ahead by 16 points in the Rasmussen poll taken Saturday. That kind of 25-point swing in just six days might seem unbelievable, were it not for other polls — by NBC News and the Miami Herald — confirming Romney’s sudden double-digit lead among Florida Republican voters.
One of Romney’s top advisers, Eric Ferhnstrom, gave his own one-sentence analysis at a rally Friday in Orlando: “Newt hasn’t won a day since he won South Carolina.” From that perspective — viewing the campaign as a day-by-day battle — it’s hard to argue with Ferhnstrom’s blunt interpretation. Gingrich has been thrown on the defensive by the newly aggressive Romney campaign, and Gingrich’s attempted counter-attacks arguably have worsened his standing with Florida voters. On ABC Sunday, Gingrich called Romney “blatantly dishonest” and said Romney’s character is a “serious problem.” But does Gingrich really want to make the Florida primary about “character”? It is difficult to imagine that old-fashioned Republican voters here — a state where retirees may actually be a majority of the GOP electorate — would judge the twice-divorced Gingrich as having more “character” than Romney, who has been married to the same woman for 42 years. Although allegations against Gingrich by his ex-wife Marianne apparently did not hurt him in South Carolina, it may be that Newt’s transgressions (about which our editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. wrote last week) are not viewed forgivingly by Floridians.
In that sense, Romney could have been accused of making a veiled “personal attack” during Sunday’s rally in downtown Naples merely by introducing his own wife. “There was a time back in high school that a girl I knew in elementary school became much more interesting,” Romney told the crowd in Sugden Plaza. “You see, Ann and I went to the same elementary school. She was in second grade, I was in fourth. I didn’t notice her then. But when she was just about 16, I noticed in a big way. We were at a party together at a friend’s house. She had come with someone else. I went to her date and I said, ‘Look, I live closer to Ann than you do. Can I give her a ride home for you?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ We’ve been going steady ever since. My sweetheart, Ann Romney.”
The implied contrast with Gingrich’s troubled marital history was not lost on a veteran political reporter who stood near me amid the crowded plaza. “Zing! He’s killing him,” said the correspondent, relishing Romney’s careful rhetorical knife-work. After Romney’s lovely blonde wife had spoken, the candidate himself took the microphone and began laying into Gingrich directly. “He’s now finding excuses everywhere he can,” Romney said of Gingrich. “He’s on TV this morning going from station to station complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he thinks he’s had difficulty here in Florida. But you know, we’ve got a president who has a lot of excuses, and the excuses are over, it’s time to produce.” Romney then said, “The reason that Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is that the people of Florida have watched the debates, have listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, ‘You know what, Mitt Romney’s the guy we’re going to support.'”
And it may actually be that simple. It might also be that affluent retirees in places like Naples, where the so-called “one percent” come to live out their golden years in gated golf-course communities, were offended by Gingrich’s populist attacks on Romney’s career at the Bain Capital investment firm. Although Gingrich backed off that line of attack after being criticized for arguments that echoed anti-capitalist complaints of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, resentment may linger among upscale retirees whose income is largely derived from investment earnings. But the gray-haired residents of South Florida who comprise a core constituency for Romney also keenly feel the loss of asset-value caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. Many who are currently “underwater” on their mortgages are worried about selling their homes in such a depressed marked. And Romney didn’t hesitate to remind his Naples audience of Gingrich’s connection to that issue.
“Mister Speaker, your trouble in Florida is not because the audience is too quiet or too loud, or because you have opponents that are tough,” Romney said, mocking Gingrich’s complaints about two recent televised debates. “Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people.”
Romney’s words emphasized the message of attack ads aired in Florida both by his own campaign and by Restore Our Future, a so-called “super PAC” that supports him. Between the two entities, the pro-Romney effort has spent nearly $7 million in Florida, according to the Associated Press, more than three times the reported $2.2 million spent by the Gingrich campaign and his “super PAC,” Winning Our Future. But if Romney wins Tuesday’s primary here, the disproportion will be far greater than 3-to-1, because Florida awards convention delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and the loser will leave the Sunshine State with nothing to show for his effort except the embarrassment of defeat.