Even if Mitt Romney remains the Republican the Obama re-election campaign is most comfortable running against, Newt Gingrich might be the lowest-hanging fruit next fall, especially in the key battleground state of Florida.
Newt’s surge continues as he gains ground — and large leads over Romney — in fresh polls of Republicans in Florida and nationally. He went so far as to declare bluntly to ABC News’ Jake Tapper on Thursday that “I’m going to be the nominee.”
But while another poll released Thursday shows President Obama leading Romney by just one percentage point in the Sunshine state, he’s up six on the former Speaker of the House.
“To find the last time a GOP Presidential candidate lost Florida by more than that you have to go all the way back to Thomas Dewey in 1948,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which conducted the survey. “Even Barry Goldwater did better in Florida than Gingrich is right now.”
Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, thanks to the usual strong Democratic support in the South and surprisingly good numbers along the I-4 corridor, the central Florida swing region that includes Orlando and Tampa that George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004 and that often determines the winner in state-wide contests.
Romney’s edge on Gingrich speaks to his business acumen and image as a relative moderate, say Florida political observers.
“It’s long been the case that independents lean more toward Romney, and long-time activists tend to be more in Romney’s camp because they see him as a better general election candidate, and what draws them there is his business experience, and what draws them away from Gingrich is his ties with Congress,” said Susan MacManus, a government professor at the University of South Florida and an expert on state politics.
“There is a Republican base that everyone around here keeps saying at the 11th hour, they’re going to hold their nose and be pragmatic and go Romney,” agreed Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Lynn University and a widely-cited Florida political sage. “It’s the same thing you saw with McCain four years ago.”
“Every time they introduce him at a program, they say ‘Former Speaker of the House,'” added MacManus, which only reminds voters of his long tenure in America’s least popular institution.
Romney’s campaign seems to be acknowledging danger is the former Speaker’s rise, and apparently are not afraid of using the former Massachusetts Governor’s long, unblemished marriage as a weapon (Gingrich is twice-divorced), while reminding activists at the same time of the former Speaker’s extended, muddied history in D.C.
“Speaker Gingrich is a good man, he and I have very different backgrounds,” Romney told Bret Baier on Fox News Tuesday evening. “He spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington. I spent my career in the private sector, and I think that’s what the country needs right now.”
Key to whether Gingrich can emerge as a potent general election candidate will be how he fares with Latino voters, the fastest-growing demographic in America and a vital constituency in the Sunshine State. The former Speaker made headlines in a recent Republican debate for standing up for the human rights of illegal immigrants, at least rhetorically.
“One of the things Newt Gingrich has been trying to do and has actually been trying to do since before he announced for president is trying to follow the George W. Bush and Karl Rove model in recognizing that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population, and Republicans have maxed out on a white-voters-only strategy,” said Gary Segura, a principal at Latino Decisions, a group that analyzes Latino political opinion and activity. “They have to find a way [to improve their standing with Latinos] or else confine themselves to electoral irrelevancy.”
“As a practical matter, his policy proposals are a joke,” Segura added. “But he’s trying to communicate that he’s open [to Latinos] and that could give him an extra one or one and a half percent of the Latino vote,” though probably not enough to have a significant impact in South Florida, where Mitt Romney has locked up the support of two current and one former Cuban-American Congressmen.
“He’s been getting a lot of play in the Hispanic press as a more reasonable Republican,” said Watson, noting that Latinos broke in favor of Republican Governor Rick Scott last year despite favoring Obama 2-1 in 2008. “But it’s typical Newt: Come up with something very profound and visionary [at the debate], and then utterly not follow it up with ground game or tactical or strategic politicking. He had a chance to make a lot of inroads in Florida, but I don’t see him closing the deal.”
If Newt’s surge proves ephemeral — whether because of electoral doubts amongst Republican activists or otherwise — it will mean the conservative movement chose a course of pragmatism, with their least orthodox and most electorally palatable candidate. Tellingly, most Gingrich supporters in Florida named Romney as their second choice.