MIAMI – Four years ago, Florida sealed Mitt Romney’s fate as the vanquished opponent of Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary, but today, the state is poised to send the former Massachusetts governor surging into February as the overwhelming favorite to secure the party’s nomination.
Romney holds double-digit leads in just about every poll to emerge from the Sunshine State in the past week.
It’s quite a change, not only from four years ago but from a mere 10 days ago. Romney endured a disastrous showing in the South Carolina primary, where he not only lost the state by a resounding margin to Newt Gingrich but also lost his apparent victory in Iowa when Rick Santorum was declared the winner by 34 votes.
Suddenly, a man who had been seen as “the inevitable nominee” was now dogged by questions. With all his financial clout and organizational strength, how could Romney have lost two of the nation’s first three voting states? Why could he not seem to budge his support above the 25 percent level he had enjoyed in polls dating back to early last year? Could he really fall victim to the likes of Gingrich – the former House Speaker with enough baggage to occupy an airport’s worth of TSA inspectors until Election Day – and Santorum – who lost his last election in 2006 by one of the widest margins ever for an incumbent senator?
In Florida, Romney’s campaign pulled out all the stops. He hit the airwaves – hard, with negative attack after negative attack on Gingrich. He dominated the debates – taking a more aggressive approach than he had in weeks previously. He shelled out money, outspending Gingrich, when the outside Super Pacs are included, by a reported 5-to-1 margin. And now it appears that his approach is going to pay off.
“I think it’s going to be a solid victory for Romney,” Republican strategist Carlos Curbelo said in an interview. “And it’s an important test for him because he came into this state limping and was able to recover, get back on his feet, get back on offense.”
The lesson, Curbelo said, is to stay aggressive.
“Romney – after his New Hampshire victory – started acting presidential, and it backfired. Gingrich almost started doing the same thing after South Carolina, especially in the debates he was very cautious in his responses to Romney’s attacks. But if you’re not on offense, you’re losing. It’s good practice for the general election because we know the Obama machine is going to be out there in full force. They’re probably going to have more resources than whoever the Republican is – and whoever it is better be ready to fight.”
Another key element to Romney’s Florida revival has been his widespread support among the state’s Latino voters. Florida has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country. According to data from the Florida Division of Elections compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos make up 13.1 percent of the state’s 11.2 million registered voters.
Whereas four years ago Latinos opted en masse for McCain, this time around they appear poised to back Romney. According to a recent poll conducted by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision, Romney enjoys a 49-17 percent lead over Gingrich among Cuban-Americans, the state’s most powerful Latino voting bloc, and a 22-12 edge among Puerto Ricans.
“His showing among Hispanic voters, I think, will be particularly important, because whoever the nominee is better be able to win the confidence and the support of the Hispanic community, at least a significant proportion of them,” Curbelo said.
While Romney was unable to secure the support of the state’s hugely popular Sen. Marco Rubio, he did win the backing of a handful of some other influential Cuban-American lawmakers in Congress such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
The community, when it comes to national politics, really listens to their local leadership and for more than 20 years the Diaz-Balarts and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have guided this community, so their endorsement – which in 2008 went for McCain – obviously can be decisive and this time it’s showing with Romney,” Curbelo said. “Romney is now a known quantity here. He’s been campaigning here for six years. The No. 1 issue for Hispanic Americans and for all Americans is jobs and the economy. And he’s the candidate that voters trust in that regard. If you can’t win the Hispanic vote in Florida you’re not going to do very well nationally just because Florida Hispanic voters tend to be more conservative, so it’s crucial for Romney.”
Even Romney himself sounded confident at an event in Dunedin on Monday, telling a crowd of supporters, “With a turnout like this, I’m starting to feel like we might win tomorrow.”
But Gingrich is not about to throw in the towel in the primary, warning that no matter what happens in Florida he intends to continue on into Nevada and beyond. In an interview with ABC News Monday in Tampa, Gingrich said Romney has “a profound character problem” and is “trying to buy the election.”
That was an argument echoed by Gingrich’s daughter Kathy Lubbers in an interview in Miami.
“The interesting note is simply that the Romney campaign hasn’t spent any money touting his governmental work. All negative,” Lubbers said. “They don’t want to talk about when Mitt Romney was actually a governor. He was not conservative. He’s a liberal. He created RomneyCare, which is what ObamaCare was built on. His state was third from the bottom in creating jobs. None of that is helpful. None of that is good. … He just doesn’t have a good spot to stand on.”
“If you don’t have a positive message about your work, you have to go negative because there’s nothing else to say,” she said.
Romney, for his part, blamed Gingrich’s complaints on the fact that he had been outdueled in the two Florida debates last week.
“Speaker Gingrich, he’s not feeling very excited these days,” Romney said. “I know, it’s sad. He’s been flailing about a bit trying to go after me for one thing or another. You just watch it and shake your head. It’s been kind of painfully revealing to watch. I think the reason he’s not doing so well is because of those last two debates, don’t you think?”
Whatever the case may be, the Republican race now looks poised to extend well into the spring and possibly even beyond. If Gingrich – as he has stated – in fact goes on to the convention, then the GOP battle could prove harmful to the party’s chances of winning back the White House in the general election.
“As a Republican, I am a little concerned,” Curbelo said. “I don’t think Gingrich is as amenable as other candidates would be to trying to unite the party. He’s pledged to go all the way to the convention and even though Romney will have a lot of momentum, that’s not to say that Gingrich won’t be able to win other primaries, so the future’s not clear. We don’t know what it holds. It’s really up to Gingrich, and I think there’s very few people who could convince Gingrich, just because he feels understandably that the whole establishment has ganged up on him.
“Re-election campaigns in order for the challenging party to succeed have to focus on the job performance of the incumbent and as long as the spotlight is not on the president and his record, it’s not good for the cause of defeating him,” he said.
“I think we all have legitimate reasons to be concerned at this point with Gingrich making the pledges that he’s making to drag this out.”
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.