Tampa, Fla. — The first three battles of the Republican presidential race — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — were frequently waged in crowded restaurants. Pizza Ranch, a Midwestern favorite, featured prominently, as did the Red Arrow diner in Manchester, N.H., and Bobby’s Bar-B-Q in Warrenville, S.C. But here, in the sprawling Sunshine State, the focus on retail politics has diminished, and in certain areas, disappeared. Campaigns are organizing on the ground, of course, but the television war, spread over ten media markets, overshadows the handshakes.
On Monday night, the four remaining contenders — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul — will meet here, on Florida’s west coast, for the first of two televised debates this week. Monday’s clash will be broadcast by NBC News; on Thursday, CNN will host a debate in Jacksonville. These two events, expected to be watched by thousands of likely GOP voters, will have significant effects — dominating the news cycle and forging impressions.
But the pair of tussles under the klieg lights only hints at television’s importance in Florida, where millions of registered voters rarely, if ever, meet presidential contenders. Beyond the debates, an intense, weeklong flurry of 30-second ads — paid for by campaigns and independent super PACs — will blanket the airwaves. “It requires a vast amount of resources to compete,” says Brian Graham, a state GOP strategist. “We have some of the largest media markets in the country. Grassroots matter a little bit; money matters a lot.”
For the moment, Romney, reeling after a second-place finish in South Carolina, holds a financial advantage over the surging Gingrich and the rest of the field. His campaign has funneled millions into TV spots, and Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, has spent $5 million in Florida since mid-December. According to a Reuters analysis, the super PAC’s “outlay is more than 20 times the amount spent in Florida so far by any other [related] group.”
That early cash infusion could benefit Romney, thanks to early voting. According to state officials, nearly 200,000 registered Republicans have already voted; many of those votes were mailed before Gingrich ascended. That boost, coupled with the millions to be spent this week, could be a crucial edge. “Romney’s organization is deeper,” says Justin Sayfie, a co-chairman of Romney’s state campaign. “He’s also been on the air in English and Spanish.”
In the final days of campaigning, Sayfie says, the Romney campaign will make a statewide play, from the Panhandle to the Keys. But on television, the real skirmish will be in the I-4 corridor, a populous region that includes the Tampa and Orlando media markets. “That’s the key,” he says. “Along with Miami-Dade and Broward, those markets make up more than a majority of Florida Republicans.” And after months of legwork, “those areas are good areas for Romney.”
On Sunday night, Romney held a rally in Volusia County, near Orlando, which he lost by two points to Senator John McCain in 2008’s GOP primary. Sayfie and other Romney advisers say the lessons from that race will be another factor this week, and will help them stay on the offensive against Gingrich. In his schedule, and especially in his ad buys, Romney will look to drive up turnout in districts he nearly nabbed last cycle, and in his previous strongholds, from central Florida to the Jacksonville area, in the northeast corner of the state, where he won eight counties.
Romney’s new spots, and especially those run by Restore Our Future, will probably pivot away from the biography-heavy, positive ads that have been popping up on Florida flat-screens, sources say. Brutal anti-Gingrich ads, similar to those seen in Iowa, will likely appear in abundance, and those television ads will be backed up by countless Internet videos. Romney’s team cannot coordinate with the super PAC, but they benefit from and parallel the group’s messaging.
Indeed, in a state at the heart of the housing crisis, Romney’s aides see an opportunity to hammer Gingrich’s past. And Romney, speaking Sunday, hinted at what’s to come, knocking Gingrich for his lucrative consulting work for Freddie Mac. “What was his work product there? What was he doing at Freddie Mac?” Romney asked. “Because Freddie Mac figures in very prominently in the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down; it’s time to turn that around!”