LUTZ, FLORIDA— On the last Sunday before the Florida primary, Newt Gingrich bowed his head at Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church, a megachurch in a suburb north of Tampa. As the remaining Republican candidates scramble to reach as many voters as humanly possible before Tuesday's all-important primary, every chance to preen before a captive audience is a golden opportunity. And no audience is more glued to their seats than devout Christians on a Sunday.
Talk to Newt Gingrich's supporters in Florida, and you'll likely hear someone bemoan the negative tone of the presidential campaign. They're sick of the attacks, both against Gingrich by the super PACs and Romney himself, but some also say they dislike the idea of negativity in general, even when it's done by their preferred candidate.
Peg Bradley was "infuriated" when I spoke with her after a Mitt Romney rally on the Space Coast last Friday. In her view, Romney and Gingrich are ripping apart the Republican Party with their "divisive" attacks both "twisting the other one's record." She wanted to hear what Romney had to say in person but considered her vote pretty much decided. "Because Romney's super PAC started it all, I'm voting Gingrich."
At his blog Frontloading HQ, political scientist Josh Putnam notes that, after Florida, it becomes impossible for a candidate to enter and win the 1,144 delegates necessary to attain the Republican presidential nomination:
If the list is constrained more simply to the states where filing deadlines have not passed, the total delegates open to a late entrant drops to 1157. After Tuesday, when Kentucky’s (and Indiana’s petition—see footnote 17 above) deadlines pass that total will drop below 1144 to 1066.
That's how I saw it when he confronted a protester during the South Carolina primaries. The young man asked how the former Massachusetts governor, as a member of the 1 percent, planned to support the 99 percent. Romney gave an answer that he'd been polishing for a week about the need for unity during our country's darkest hour and how demands of the 1 percent were attempts at division and rancor among the citizenry. Then he cited countries that we were supposed to understand were not better:
"If you’ve got a better model, if you think China’s better, or Russia’s better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better, I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what, you know what, America’s right, and you’re wrong.”
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA—Mitt Romney took a note from the Gingrich playbook Friday afternoon when he visited Florida's Space Coast. Beyond the photo-op in front of a space module that once went up on one of the now retired space shuttles though, Romney made no attempt to match Gingrich's grandiose vision. He laid out reasons why he will continue a basic investment in space exploration—namely commercial, national defense and Armageddon type catastrophes—but didn't lay out any precise ideas for what he would do if he becomes president other than a vague suggestion that more of the burden should rest on private enterprises.
ORLANDO, FLORIDA—Mitt Romney just can't drop his phony everyman act, and he added a new spin on it Friday night: the struggling young businessman.
By this point anyone with even the slightest interest in politics is well aware of Romney's extreme wealth. Criticism from his rivals finally forced Romney to enter his most recent tax returns into the public record, and the figures were astounding. He earned $21.7 million in 2010; he earns the average median household income in less than a single day.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA—Presidential campaigns are often rote affairs. This fact is shielded from the majority of the voters, who tune into the debates and perhaps attend one town hall. The candidates strive to present their stump speeches as organic conversations delivered extemporaneously, not the finely tuned scripts they truly are. But it's obvious to journalists who tag along with the traveling press corps—you hear the same boring anecdote delivered hour after hour, day after day.
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—I'm an avowed space nerd who would love nothing more than to see a human land on Mars during my lifetime. So last night's debate was the most entertaining for me of the unending series in this year's election. Thanks to vapid moderation from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the majority of the debate was devoted to personal life questions better suited for Oprah's couch than a debate stage. He ended the night by asking the candidates why they were the most electable candidate, essentially requesting each of them to offer a shorter version of their usual stump speeches.
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—The candidates declined easy chances to attack one another with a surprising frequency during last night's debate. "This is a nonsense question," Newt Gingrich said when moderator Wolf Blitzer provided a prime opportunity to attack Romney's tax returns. "Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?" Romney didn't buy the truce-talk. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here? " he said.
We learned so many things during Thursday night’s GOP debate in Jacksonville. Callista Gingrich would be a swell first lady because she plays the French horn and loves the arts. If you’re a Palestinian-American, don’t bother asking a Republican candidate in Florida to acknowledge your humanity, or even your existence. Immigration policy is really all about undocumented grandmothers. Rick Santorum used to go to church with the governor of Puerto Rico. And Ron Paul is itching to take on the other candidates in a 25-mile bike ride in the heat of Texas.
Those who felt let down by Newt Gingrich’s muted performance at Monday night’s debate—and, really, who among us did not?—should expect to get their money’s worth tonight. Live from Jacksonville at 8 p.m., it’s Wolf Blitzer’s turn to be Newt’s media-elite piñata (and, happily, audience reactions will not be discouraged this time). But the former house speaker will have many more targets at which to aim his barbs—especially after a furious two-day bombardment by Mitt Romney and the right-wing media elite. Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., and the editors of The National Review—to name a few—have declared all-out war on Gingrich.
Survey a room of Newt Gingrich supporters and one main common theme always arises; they eagerly await the general election when Gingrich will easily waltz past Barack Obama in every debate. Newt has always thought highly of his skill at the podium. Throughout the fall and winter his stump speech has included a promise that, should he gain the nomination, he will challenge Obama to a series of seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates with no moderator. He took that pledge a step further on Thursday, stating that he would bypass the normal debate commissions. "I would reject the so-called debate commission this fall," he said," because we have had enough of newsmen deciding what the topics are going to be."
As it turns out, Mitt Romney’s donations in 2010 and 2011 include a non-trivial gift to several organizations that could be charitably described as viciously anti-gay:
The Human Rights Campaign points out a report by CNN that says Romney’s charitable foundation gave at least $35,000 to antigay groups in 2010, with $10,000 going to the Massachusetts Family Institute, which ran radio ads last year warning parents that a transgender civil rights bill could lead to all manner of danger in bathrooms.
If this most recent poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal is any indication, the public is feeling a little better about our economic situation:
[R]esults from the poll, released Wednesday, found voters feeling more positively about the economy and of Mr. Obama’s handling of it. Some 30% believed the country was headed in the right direction, up eight percentage points from a month ago. Some 60% said the country was on the wrong track, down from 69% in December and from 74% in October. […]