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!”
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.