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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

If you’re a Democrat, here’s what you’re thinking as voters go to the polls in Florida’s Republican primary:

Pinch me.

Because Newt Gingrich — defrocked speaker of the House, original godfather of government gridlock, two-faced philandering impeacher of Bill Clinton, fondler of six-figure Tiffany jewels — has a chance against Mitt Romney.

If you’re President Obama’s campaign managers, it’s too early for rapture but not for a few private cartwheels. Newt Gingrich? Really?

Thank you, God.

Those of us who wrote off the old Newtster underestimated his ability to schmooze $10 million out of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire sugar daddy of the Super Pac that’s bankrolling most of Gingrich’s TV attack ads.

Simultaneously, we also underestimated Romney’s nagging deficit of charisma. The former Massachusetts governor is one of the few candidates in recent memory who can blow a big lead without actually screwing up, without a single scandal or serious stumble.

In the debates, Romney doesn’t twitch like Rick Santorum or ramble like Ron Paul. He doesn’t get confused. He doesn’t blurt stupid things. His line about the voluntary “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants didn’t cost him many votes among conservatives.

Usually Mitt stands orderly and composed, doing his standard Mitt thing. Many Florida Republicans are underwhelmed, because suddenly it’s a close race. As a result, Romney has been forced to ramp up his rhetoric, which doesn’t come easy for the guy.

Campaigning in Little Havana last week, Romney said: “If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president of the United States, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off the planet. We have to be prepared.”

The phrase “taken off the planet” was a weird choice, conjuring an image of Fidel being dragged by pointy-headed aliens into a spaceship. What Romney should have said was: “Castro is old and sick, and soon he’ll be dead. We need to be ready for change in Cuba.”

But poor Mitt didn’t put it that way because he thought “off the planet” would make a meatier headline. He was trying to compete with Newt, who’d earlier pledged to Cuban Americans that, as president, he would use covert tactics to overthrow the Castro regime.

Invoking the political upheavals in the Mideast, Gingrich called for a “Cuban Spring.” That would have been a good line back in 1961. Now it’s just cynical pandering.

For someone claiming to be a “historian” — a spectacularly overcompensated historian, judging by his tax returns — Newt has tramped through South Florida displaying meager knowledge of U.S.-Cuban history.

Castro has outlasted 10 American presidents, yet Gingrich without a smirk promises to be one who will vanquish the 85-year-old tyrant. He didn’t reveal his secret plan for eliminating Fidel, but perhaps the CIA could devise an exploding Depends.

As for Raul, he’s probably not quaking in his boots at the prospect of a Gingrich or a Romney presidency. Like his ailing brother, he’s heard all this tough talk before — for five decades, as a matter of fact.

Whether Castro is off the planet or buried six feet under matters less to Floridians than high unemployment, epidemic foreclosures and the future of health-care reform. These are very hard problems to solve, and both of the leading GOP candidates are more comfortable berating Obama rather than offering specifics.

However, last week Gingrich visited Cocoa, where NASA workers have been hurt by layoffs and budget woes, and promised a surprising new project to create more jobs: A lunar colony.

Said Newt: “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”

It’s one of those quotes you have to read twice to make sure it’s real. Be assured that it’s already tacked on the too-good-to-be-true corkboard at Obama national headquarters.

Colonizing the moon is somewhat low on the priority list for most voters, and the president would be mocked as a space case for proposing such a thing while the nation is mired in debt and clawing back from the brink of fiscal collapse.

Gingrich’s fantasy of a bustling lunar-settlement is another fine opportunity for Romney to make the case that his opponent is hopelessly stuck in the past, though time’s running out. Romney himself has serious PAC money, much of which is being spent to portray Newt as tarnished and unelectable.

But hold on: We’re talking about Florida, where tarnished doesn’t mean unelectable, where just two short years ago Rick Scott was elected governor in a mass dissolution of common sense.

It could happen again today, and nobody knows this better than the Democrats now salivating for Newt.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2012, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.


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