NAPLES, Fla. - As President Obama declared in his address to the nation last night that "the state of our union is getting stronger," the two Republicans most likely to challenge him in November were engaged in an all-out brawl less than a week before the Florida primary.
The president must be loving it.
His two potential opponents are spending each day eviscerating each other on tax returns that show a very wealthy man (Mitt Romney) paying very little in taxes and on "non-lobbying" consulting contracts with Freddie Mac that show another man (Newt Gingrich) making money off his Washington, DC rolodex.
Romney and Gingrich are likely to spend today serving up equal parts rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union speech and attacks on one another, which they hope in the short term, will be enough to persuade Florida voters to line up behind them.
Winning the top prize here means more than just delegates. It will show unmistakable momentum heading into the rest of the primary season and could go a long way toward sealing the deal for either one of the contenders.
But the situation that the former Massachusetts governor finds himself in has to be especially frustrating after months of being the fragile, and then, not-so-fragile front-runner for the Republican nomination as Gingrich's campaign twisted in the political winds.
According to a new Quinnipiac University poll of likely Florida voters, Gingrich "wipes out a 12-point lead by Mitt Romney to tie the former Massachusetts governor in Florida." Romney is barely holding on to the lead with 36 percent compared to 34 percent for Gingrich. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stands at 13 percent and Ron Paul garners 10 percent.
"Florida is essentially a dead heat and a two-man race between Gov. Mitt Romney and Speaker Newt Gingrich entering the last week of the campaign," Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown noted.
And the new numbers appear to be reflecting the situation on the ground in the Sunshine State. In a single day of campaigning on Tuesday, Gingrich drew some of the largest crowds of his presidential bid (more on that below).
"The fact is, Governor Romney will have vastly more money than I will, but we'll have many more people than he will," Gingrich said at the Tick Tock restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida yesterday. "This is exactly what happened in South Carolina and people power beats money power every time."
Even so, Romney remains a focus for Democrats and Obama's re-election campaign. As The New York Times' Mark Landler reports, the president did not mention him by name in the speech, he "was the unspoken adversary in Mr. Obama's call for a more equitable society - the natural foil for his proposals to level the playing field for middle-class Americans, from taxes to trade policy."
ABC's Jake Tapper breaks down the battle plan that President Obama laid out in last night's State of the Union address. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/vZx6S2
ABC NEWS FACTS CHECK THE STATE OF THE UNION: http://abcn.ws/xU3UuM
WHY THE PRIMARY COULD BE A LONG SLOG. "This GOP race could go on for a long time, and Democrats profess to be thrilled about that prospect, about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich continuing to bloody each other up, aided by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "Why would this go on for awhile? Because a combination of an elongated schedule, new Republican National Committee rules, and some quirks of fate have diminished the importance of individual contests and reduced the ability for knock-out punches.
"Here's how top Democrats see it: On January 31 comes the Florida primary, as we know. Because the Sunshine State has opted to hold its primary on an earlier date than the RNC had sanctioned, Florida's 99 delegates have been shrunk to 50 as penalty, lessening the state's impact. These delegates will be winner-take all. Whoever wins - Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul - it's unlikely that the other three will drop out. As of now Romney, Gingrich and Santorum can brag about winning one contest. One of their rivals' jumping to two doesn't change the dynamic all that much, they can argue. Especially when all it means is 50 delegates out of 1,144 needed to win the GOP presidential nomination. What comes after Florida? February brings four GOP caucuses - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada. That's a whole month for just 128 delegates, 5% of the total that can be won. All of these 128 delegates will be allocated proportionally. This won't encourage anyone to drop out - it will keep folks in the race." http://abcn.ws/AqZK75
NEW ON THE AIRWAVES: ABC's Emily Friedman reports that the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, is out with a new ad in Florida this morning titled "Reagan." It counts the number of times Newt Gingrich has mentioned his relationship with Ronald Reagan and then says he was exaggerating. WATCH: http://bit.ly/yCgX2A
The Restore Our Future ad comes on the heels of another big super PAC push - this one on behalf of Gingrich. The super PAC Winning Our Future, was being outspent on Florida airwaves. But, Rick Tyler, the spokesperson for the SuperPAC, tells ABC News Political Director Amy Walter that the group has purchased $6 million worth of airtime for a new ad that goes directly at the health care plan Romney championed in Massachusetts. The group's funding has been bolstered by a fresh $5 million donation from Miriam Adelson, the wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. WATCH: http://bit.ly/zz5M2j
JON KARL'S SPINNERS AND WINNERS: In the first installment of ABC's new web series Spinners and Winners, our Jon Karl takes a look at the fair, the unfair and the outrageous in the latest political ads. "As get closer to the critical Florida primary on Jan. 31, the rhetoric and spin among the Republican hopefuls Florida is just plain vicious. Take the anti-Newt Gingrich ad from Mitt Romney's supporters meant to blunt the former Speaker's momentum. The pro-Romney Super PAC is spending $5 million on ads in Florida. But is the ad fair? The ad has some elements of truth - the former Speaker was indeed fined for ethics violations and he did earn a large sum of money from the troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Fair enough. But the ad goes way over the line when it says that Gingrich co-sponsored a bill in Congress with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi that would give $60 million a year to a UN program supporting China's brutal one-child policy. That's a lot of spin, but it's just not true." WATCH: http://abcn.ws/yV84CN
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Democratic National Committee is out with a new video today raising question about why Romney "is investing so much of his money in notorious overseas tax havens. Why does Mitt Romney think it's wise to accuse President Obama of wanting to turn America into Europe when he's making so much of his money there? More important, why did Romney deposit his money into a secret Swiss bank account - and why did his money manager suddenly believe it was a 'political problem'?" WATCH: http://bit.ly/z1kQvC
JOE BIDEN CALLS GINGRICH CLAIMS 'RIDICULOUS.' "Vice President Joe Biden defended President Barack Obama's State of the Union message on "Good Morning America" today calling for greater economic fairness, saying that statements by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich accusing Obama of promoting food stamps are "ridiculous." Following the president's speech last night, in which he called for greater economic fairness on taxes between the wealthy and middle class, Gingrich released a statement saying, "He will always prefer a food stamp economy to a paycheck economy and call it fair." "It's hard to respond to Newt with those kind of ridiculous statements," Vice President Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "GMA." "Do they actually think that President Barack Obama wants to put everybody on food stamps? I don't know what they mean by it quite frankly… There must be some base they're trying to appeal to. I just don't know." "We have a different priority set than Newt Gingrich and apparently… and our Republican colleagues have," Biden added. http://abcn.ws/A9oFP7
FLORIDIANS FLOCK TO GINGRICH. Newt Gingrich drew an estimated 5,000 people at his fourth and final event of the day on Tuesday at the Cambier Park in Naples where he told the audience that he had seen 10,000 Floridians in a single day. That may be a little high, but even in a large state like Florida, Gingrich received something of a rock-star reaction on Tuesday. He also drew a large crowd at earlier events in Sarasota and Fort Myers. In fact, spectators leaving his Fort Myers event, which was held in a parking lot adjacent to retails stores, caused a traffic delay so severe that the bus carrying the Gingrich press corps did not arrive in Naples until the candidate was finishing his remarks. Crowd size is hardly a scientific measure of support in such a sprawling state, but Gingrich's campaign aides were quick to link the turnout on Tuesday to grassroots voter enthusiasm. (Notably, Gingrich was late to all of his events of the day. His tardiness ranged from 30 minutes at his first event to an hour and half at his last. But the crowds waited for him.)
Trying to bracket Gingrich's events exactly one week before the Sunshine State's primary, the Romney campaign dispatched one of their own surrogates, Rep. Connie Mack, to shadow the former House Speaker at several of his events on Tuesday. In an interview with ABC News outside Gingrich's Fort Myers rally, Mack sought to downplay the large audiences. "Getting crowds out makes the candidate feel good but it doesn't necessarily translate into votes," Mack said. "Not everyone is here is necessarily supporting Newt. And I think a lot of people in Florida, especially with the housing crisis, want some of the questions answered about his relationship with Freddie Mac."
A LOOK AT THE LATINO VOTE IN FLORIDA. "Only nine months from Election Day, Latino voters - the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc - favor President Obama over all the Republican candidates by a wide margin, according to a new poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision News and ABC News, a welcome boost for a White House facing a difficult reelection fight. While Latinos tend to side with Democrats - and voted for Obama by a two-to-one margin in 2008 - they also have a prominent role to play in the upcoming GOP nominating contests in Nevada and, more immediately, in Florida, which votes on Jan. 31," reports ABC's Matthew Jaffe and Univision's Jordian Fabian. "In the Sunshine State, where about one in 10 likely Republican primary voters are Latino, Mitt Romney has a large, 26-point lead over his closest rival Newt Gingrich, 49 percent to 23 percent among Latino Republicans. Among all Florida Latinos, the margin is 35 to 20 in favor of Romney, with 21 percent undecided. Florida's GOP primary is closed, meaning one must be a registered Republican in order to participate." http://abcn.ws/yW2ESg
NOTED: ROMNEY ADDS TO FLORIDA TROOPS. "Mitt Romney's Iowa strategist is on his way to Florida - and he has rival Newt Gingrich squarely in his sights," reports the Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs. "David Kochel said he intends to tell Florida voters about Gingrich's failure as U.S. House speaker, his work as a lobbyist on one of the largest spending bills in history, and 'his unreliable leadership.' 'Newt finished a distant fourth in Iowa because voters came to know the real record behind his rhetoric,' he said in an email from the airport. 'You can't attack Paul Ryan seated on a couch with Nancy Pelosi and call yourself a Reagan conservative,' added Kochel, a Republican from Des Moines. 'It's a sham, and when voters take a long look like they did in Iowa and New Hampshire, he finished fourth and fifth.'" http://dmreg.co/y1v4Fd
RICK SANTORUM'S WISH. ABC's Russell Goldman reports from Florida: GOP contender Rick Santorum does not begrudge Mitt Romney's recently revealed wealth, telling a Tea Party crowd here that he wishes he had also made a "gazillion dollars." "People ask me, 'What do you think about Mitt Romney, you know, making a gazillion dollars last year?' Good for him, that's what I say, good for him. I wish I'd made some gazillion dollars last year. I'd be in a little better shape financing my own campaign," he said just hours after Romney released his much anticipated 2010 and 2011 tax returns. Romney, who has faced pressure for weeks to release his returns, revealed he had made $42.5 million in the past two years. But he paid only 13.9 percent in taxes on the 2010 income, and the rate for his 2011 income is a projected 15.3%. Addressing a crowd of about 300 people under a balmy Florida sun, Santorum did not wear his signature sweater vest and tried to get away from the persona that he is a buttoned-up Mr. Nice Guy. http://abcn.ws/z75ug1
@ArletteSaenz : Crowd of 600+ at Rick Santorum's morning event at the First Baptist Church in Naples
@samyoungman : Newt runs very, very late to events. POTUS does too, but the PDB is a pretty good excuse.
-Newt Gingrich will start his day in Miami at Florida International University with a Latin American policy speech. In the afternoon, Gingrich travels up the coast to Cocoa where he'll hold a town hall meeting at The Holiday Inn.
-Mitt Romney is in Orlando to deliver a rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union. Romney will spend the afternoon in Miami where he'll participate in the US-Cuba Democracy PAC Event.
-Rick Santorum campaigns in Naples, Florida speaking to a Republican Party Rally at the First Baptist Church. Then, Santorum heads to Miami for a "Meet the Candidates" conversation hosted by Univision.
-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)
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