Romney: To Florida and Beyond

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Governor Mitt Romney has the firm jaw, the upright bearing, the business experience and the fat wallet needed to become the GOP nominee, but first he’s got to get through Florida.

The Sunshine State is a patchwork replica of the GOPs many demographic groups; It’s got social-conservatives, party loyalists, Chamber of Commerce people, libertarians, Tea Partiers, Hispanics and Jews. The value of Romney’s character and resume will largely be determined by those primary voters, because they will give a winner a great shove toward the Super Tuesday states, and hand the losers a frozen margarita for the airplane ride home.

This will be Romney’s second time in the Land of the Punched Chad. Back in 2007, liberal Republican Gov. Charlie Crist pushed the struggling Sen. John McCain past Romney, and then towards eventual defeat in the general election.

Romney will be returning in 2012 with most of the same team of advisors, but with a new strategy. In 2007, he went for early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, but lost the one state to Governor Mike Huckabee and the other to McCain. Some portion of that defeat is due to dislike of his Mormon faith, say consultants and politicians. In 2011, he’ll lay low in Iowa and South Carolina to avoid the taint of rejection by those states’ Christian social-conservatives.

Romney is wise to avoid Iowa and South Carolina, said John Stembergerer, director of the Florida Family Policy Council. Romney’s record as the liberal-leaning governor of extremely liberal Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, and his statements in a debate against Sen. Ted Kennedy during the close Senate race of 1994, show that he’s got a liberal bent, he said. Romney been married for 42 years, has five grown children, and says he’s pro-life, but he didn’t fight hard when the courts redefined marriage in 2003 from an institution for child-rearing into an amenity for gay and straight adults, he said. “I don’t think he’s trusted on social issues,” Stembergerer said.

Instead, Romney will push very hard for a victory in second-to-vote New Hampshire, said a Romney advisor. “He’s got to win New Hampshire… it’s ground-zero,” said a Romney advisor. Romney is already doing well in the state, advisors say, and polls show him at a comfortable plurality of 40 percent in a fractured race. His advantages include name-recognition because of his governorship in next-door Massachusetts, and because he has a home in the state.

Romney will also push for an early victory in Nevada, which likely votes a few days after New Hampshire. He won there in 2007, and he’s got good prospects among older, business-friendly voters in Nevada, and also among his the 7 percent slice of the state that are Mormons.

Victories in New Hampshire and Nevada will power Romney into Florida, where his money, organization and broad appeal will help him win in a fractured GOP field, said one of his advisors. Back in 2007, Romney was seen as the leader and was the target of painful attacks-ads from nearly every other candidates, he said. This time, the attack-ads will be divided among several candidates, he said.

“Romney’s best chance of winning is that all the social-conservatives keep beating on each other,” Stemberger said. But, he said, Huckabee or Rep. Michele Bachman could sweep up the conservative vote and freeze him out. “She’s like Sarah Palin on steroids… I am stunned how she has captured the imagination of these folks,” he said.

If most of the social-conservative vote goes to one candidate, Romney must win most of the GOP’s not-really-ideological loyalists and the Chamber people. That forces him into a direct competition with perhaps three other governors – Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, MInnesota’s just-retired Tim Pawlenty and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels.

That’s where Romney’s resume can pay off. He founded and ran Bain Capital, which is a highly successful investment company, and then ran the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to a very successful and profitable finish in 2002. Older voters will remember that his father ran General Motors in the 1960s, then was voted into the Governor’s mansion in Michigan twice. His father also served in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet as housing secretary, and fought a losing battle in the GOP against Barry Goldwater’s faction.

But Governor Daniels also has a solid business-background, a successful run as governor, and has already ditched the social-conservatives by promising a social-issues truce. That’s catnip to comfortable business executives, many of whom dislike media-magnified controversies over social-issues. Romney, Barbour and Pawlenty are trying to navigate a middle-path between the business community and the social-conservatives, which may deny each an enthusiastic base.

All the candidates need plenty of money to run in Florida’s many TV markets, as well as a great ground organization. Romney is the wealthiest of the candidates – unless Jon Huntsman, a fellow Mormon, business executive and governor also jumps into the race. Romney’s aides are leaking claims that Romney will have $50 million to spend in the nomination, much of which is expected to come from executives around the nation.

In Florida, as in many other states, Romney has spent much time meeting with local GOP people and influential leaders since 2008 race. He has produced a manifesto in the form of a book – “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” – and kept his 2008 team of political advisors close. They include chief of staff Beth Myers, likely campaign manager Matt Rhoades, deputy Erik Fehrnstrom, fundraiser Spencer Zwick, and conservative-outreach guy Peter Flaherty. He ad-consultants will likely be Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens.

Romney’s money and organization are already being offset by other candidates’ team-building. One painful setback came in March, when Sally Bradshaw switched from Romney’s team to Barbour’s team. “That’s a double-get, because she brings in a lot of the [Jeb Bush machine]… and last time around, was very solidly with MItt,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida political consultant. Bradshaw’s defection “is a huge disadvantage for him – she’s very well respected and it speaks volumes for his viability is she’s bolting to another candidate,” said Stemberger.

The 2008 race showed how Crist’s endorsement helped McCain win. This time, the GOP bigwigs are ex-Governor Jeb Bush, current Governor Rick Scott and Tea Party hero Sen. Mario Rubio. So far, they haven’t tipped their hands, but South Carolina’s Sen. Jim DeMint has stepped away from Romney. That’s important, because DeMint is widely liked among Tea Party activists, who share his deep dislike of President Barack Obama’s health-sector law. In a little bit of mischief, Democratic officials have repeatedly praised Romney’s health-sector overhaul in Massachusetts as a model for the Obamacare panjandrum. “The way that the White House has framed Romney on this has hurt him badly,” especially because Romney is reluctant to invite more charges of being a flip-flopper by disavowing MassCare, said Wilson.

The preferred counter, say a Romney advisor, is to stress his trust in state-level experiments. “He’s a federalist,”  he said.

Despite the MassCare albatross around his neck, a Pew Research Center poll in March showed Romney with a 24 percent share of support among Tea Party activists. That score was only 5 points ahead of second-ranked Huckabee. A Washington Post/ABC poll showed in March that 68 percent of self-identified conservatives approve of him.

Intangibles will also sway the result. Former POW McCain had enough luck and determination to scramble to victory. This time, the laurels may be won by Bachman’s firecracker attitude or Barbour’s toughness. Perhaps Romney’s central-casting CEO style will be a perfect match for a tough economy. Although “he presents a very presidential, even uber-presidential image… he’s not personable enough,” said Stemberger. “Republican voters want to fall in love with somebody… [but Romney] doesn’t feel real, there’s no sense of connection,” said Wilson.

Still, if several candidates emerge from Florida with a state-victory or two to their names, then Romney is well-positioned to win a long, expensive fight in a fractured race, said his supporters. That’s the strategy, said his advisor. “Everyone is preparing for a long fight.”