Florida’s Air War
Abandoning the ground game of retail politics, candidates take to television.

A still from Restore Our Future’s “Now You See the Problem” ad


Robert Costa

In background conversations, Gingrich aides acknowledge the uphill climb. Nevertheless, many of them are confident that the former speaker can mount an effective campaign. As USA Today notes, Romney’s allies outspent him in South Carolina by a 2-to-1 margin, and Gingrich still found a way to win. But Florida is a different scene, and Gingrich’s ability to build upon debates with lively town-hall meetings will be limited, and their influence potentially negligible.

The focus will be to “sustain momentum in any way possible,” as one adviser says. They plan to achieve this with the help of Jose Mallea, who directed Senator Marco Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, building a volunteer network that may not rival Romney’s operation, but certainly will challenge it. Television will undoubtedly be integral, but Gingrich may rely more on debates than ads. And aides will urge the candidate to keep his cool as Romney goes negative — Gingrich will throw cold water on any allegations and aspersions, to be sure, but should not let Romney distract him from his message.

Win or lose, framing Florida’s results will also be a Gingrich goal. The Georgian’s advisers see the race as essentially a “two-man primary” following South Carolina, and though they’re making a real play for Florida, they do not see it as a “must-win state.”

For many in Gingrich World, the Florida primary is an expensive, high-profile race, among the many primaries in which the campaign can outperform expectations or, better yet, pull off an upset. Here, they see themselves as scrambling insurgents compared with Romney’s behemoth. If they win the state, Romney will be on the ropes. If not, they like what they see on the horizon. After Florida, which is a winner-take-all primary, there will be a string of states that award delegates proportionally.

But Gingrich backers are by no means giving up. After the South Carolina stunner, they’re trying to tamp down expectations, but there is excitement within the ranks. “We will be extremely competitive in Florida,” says Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC, which has millions in resources. “This South Carolina victory will be the fuel for us to go in there and win Florida. We’ll engage in the air wars and have a ground game.”

And Tyler  is ready to play hardball — to respond, ad by ad, to Romney’s super PAC. Gingrich’s campaign may be short on cash, but Tyler’s PAC money and small staff enable him to pour his resources into expensive TV markets. “What each Florida Republican needs to know is that Mitt Romney is Charlie Crist, that he’s the Charlie Crist candidate,” he says, referring to the moderate former Florida governor. “That’s our framework” — casting Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” while Gingrich emphasizes his conservative credentials on the trail.

That message may resonate, Florida GOP consultants say, but Gingrich’s success in Florida will not depend as much on his rhetoric and tone as did his success in South Carolina. Instead, it will be about television, and whether he can find space amid Romney saturation. In a compressed timeframe, in a fluid race, in a big state, a strong presence in the key markets, especially central Florida, could be the difference between winning and losing 50 delegates.

“When I look at Florida media buys, in order to assess whether something is a ‘real buy’ or a ‘fake buy,’ I look at Orlando, Tampa, and Miami broadcast markets,” says Todd Harris, a senior political adviser to Senator Rubio. “If you are up in those markets, then you are talking to a majority of the voters who will turn out.” Romney is already airing ads in those regions, and unless Gingrich finds a way to build a presence, he’ll struggle to gain traction.

Gingrich, cognizant of his obstacles, will make this a hard fight, says Bob Livingston, a former congressman and Gingrich confidant. “Coming out of South Carolina, he’s armed for bear,” Livingston says. “He’s got strong Hispanic support and support among conservatives, and Romney doesn’t play well in the South. He won’t have as much money, but he’s catching up, and he’s speaking over the noise. And if Gingrich can carry Florida, he could be the next president.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


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