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Politics: Florida front and center primary battle

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   Jan. 29, 2012 at 4:00 AM   |   Comments

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Florida, knocked down a few pegs in some quarters before Newt Gingrich's double-digit win in South Carolina, is front and center Tuesday in the Republican quest for the presidential nomination.

Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who have swapped out the lead in Florida depending on the poll and the day, have been blasting each other in public appearances and their allies have sunk millions of dollars to keep the battle going at a high pitch (if you're a Gingrich backer) or possibly put the GOP nomination a little further out of reach (if you are a Romneyite).

As of Friday, RealClearPolitics.com said its average of polls indicated Gingrich had 31.3 percent support while Romney had 27 percent.

Three different candidates have won the two primaries and one caucus already conducted: Gingrich took South Carolina, Romney claimed New Hampshire and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania won Iowa after all the votes were counted.

While Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have campaigned in Florida, observers note the primary is generally considered to be a battle between Romney and Gingrich.

Just as South Carolina was important because it was the first primary in the South, Florida is important because it will either validate Gingrich as a serious contender or slow his momentum if the former Massachusetts governor wins.

Already conservative commentators are piling on Gingrich, Politico reported.

Columnist and commentator Ann Coulter warns visitors to her Web site: "Re-elect Obama, Vote Newt!"

Former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a top deputy to Gingrich when Republicans swept into power in the House in the mid-1990s and later a majority leader, chimed in, saying in an interview on KTRH-AM, Houston, Gingrich is "not really a conservative. I mean, he'll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability, sort of like [former President Bill] Clinton, to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined."

Romney hasn't been immune from attacks either.

Romney tried to soften his line on illegal immigrants -- moving away from calling for laws so severe undocumented aliens would "self-deport" -- but still finds himself in a hole with Hispanic activists in both parties who told Politico they were shocked at Romney's rightward shift in the past two months and expressed doubt he could come back to center.

"As for Romney, immigration and the Hispanic vote, put a fork in him. He's done, cooked, burnt," said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the Democratic group America's Voice.

Romney's between a rock and a hard place, Sharry said.

"What can Romney do? If he flip-flops in the general, he'll piss off his new hardliner friends on the right and underscore his flip-flopping reputation; he stays hard right and [he angers] the fastest growing voter bloc in the country," he said.

Some Republicans agreed, Politico noted.

"Romney has done himself some real damage," said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican who has advised Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Romney has now thrown Obama a lifesaver on the issue. It's been stupid and unnecessary. He could have been more nuanced and left himself room to maneuver."

In Florida, Hispanics will be a major factor for the first time in this year's presidential contest. The 2010 U.S. Census indicates Florida's population is about 22.5 percent Hispanic.

On top of the dueling I'm-the-best-chance-to-beat-Obama arguments, Floridians also will be voting under two sets of election laws, The Miami Herald reported.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who's resigning next month, has made several decisions that led to the situation in which 62 counties will conduct their primaries by one set of laws and five others by another.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that any voting law changes must be cleared by the federal government before they can take effect in the five Florida counties that committed racial discrimination in the past -- and the feds have yet to approve changes to the election laws that legislators passed last year and Browning supports.

The changes -- which affect early voting, voter registration and voters who've moved since the last election -- are before a federal three-judge panel, which expects to rule in the spring.

Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any presidential camp so far, told The Washington Post Florida's diverse population and its winner-take-all delegate structure (50 are up for grabs) make it a must-win for Gingrich.

"Gingrich's only real chance to win the nomination is to win Florida," McKinnon said. "Otherwise, like [World War II German Gen. Erwin] Rommel, his fuel lines will run out. And Romney's won't."

Florida also is the most expensive state in which to advertise to date, U.S. News & World Report said. Boots on the ground worked for Santorum in Iowa, strong ties did it for Romney in New Hampshire and a vigorous campaign brought South Carolina to Gingrich. But experts say it takes more than one trick to wrap up a win in Florida. The successful candidate needs cash, organization and the right message.

"Because we are so big and there are so many different factors that are important here, I think debates, earned media, as well as television, and organization in terms of how many humans are out there getting people together, making sure their voters turn out -- all of those things are part of the strategy to win Florida," state GOP spokesman Brian Hughes said.

"There are other states where you can get away with more or less of that; in Florida, you really need to be doing it all," he said.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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