TAMPA, Fla.-Rasmussen and Insider Advantage polls on Jan. 25 showed Mitt Romney retaking a comfortable lead in the Florida primary, but one statement seems undebatable: In the most volatile GOP presidential primary Tour D'America of modern times, no leader can rest comfortably.
One remarkable development in a race looking more like a demolition derby than a championship event: The candidate favored by a plurality of evangelicals has multiple adulteries and divorces in his past, anger management issues in his present, a flame-out in his one leadership job, and dire warnings on record from almost every leader who has worked with him. Yet in South Carolina nearly 44 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Newt Gingrich, and one early Florida poll had 35 percent of born-again Christians saying they supported Gingrich.
One reason is that Romney has left some evangelicals concerned about his taxes and management record, and others about his Mormon faith. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum was working hard to turn his support from some high-profile evangelicals into higher name recognition within Florida's big media markets, and Ron Paul's ardent supporters were trying to fan his bright flame of libertarian support into a grassfire.
But the main reason why Gingrich keeps making comebacks is his performance in what has become a marathon of Republican presidential debates: 19 and counting. His pugnacious style and penchant for pithy applause lines put him in front of national polls in early December, but he cratered before Christmas as more voters became aware of his record. Then he surged again by verbally punching arrogant reporters. Gingrich's defining indignant answer may have come two days before the South Carolina primary, when CNN moderator John King asked about the former Speaker's unfaithfulness to his second wife. Gingrich said, "To take an ex-wife and make it ... a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." The crowd went wild.
Gingrich is capitalizing on his debate successes by having Republican voters see him as President Barack Obama's worst debate nightmare. He said that if he wins the nomination he will challenge Obama to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates that would include a timekeeper but no moderator. "He can use a teleprompter if he wants to," Gingrich told a Florida audience: "If you had to defend Obamacare, wouldn't you want to use a teleprompter?" Right now only three fall presidential debates are on the schedule, as has been standard in recent elections: They are set for Oct. 3, 16, and 22 in Colorado, New York, and Florida.
Gingrich's big South Carolina win helped him to garner enthusiastic and large crowds at his recent Florida rallies. With Gingrich admitting his infidelity to his first and second wives, many evangelicals view him as part of a saga of redemption. Though he does deny his second wife's contention that he asked for an "open marriage," he admits he committed adultery with Callista Gingrich, the woman who became his third wife, and says it was a mistake. That works for many Florida voters, including Elle Stenberg, 60, who recently sat on the hood of her Mercedes convertible trying to catch a glimpse of Gingrich during his appearance at the Tick Tock Restaurant in St. Petersburg. "I'm a preacher's daughter, and I'm pretty tough on morality," she said. "But people change. He's asked for forgiveness, and God is going to judge that."
Stenberg also highlighted another reason behind Gingrich's recent rise: She and others see Romney as the candidate of an "establishment" trying to push its preference down the throats of the rest. Gingrich's "enemies are the elites of Washington and that's good enough for me," said Stenberg, who works for a medical malpractice insurance company. "He is going to crack some heads, and the elites in Washington know it." Many perceive Gingrich that way despite his insider background in the House and as a lobbyist for the D.C. elite. Ken Connor, chairman of the conservative Center for a Just Society, said that because Gingrich has been out of office for so long, he is able to run an insurgent campaign that has attracted a large Tea Party following.
Romney has started to attack Gingrich's outsider image. His strategy was to aim his ire at Obama while appearing to remain above the GOP fray-but during the first Florida debate in Tampa, Romney, fresh off his loss in South Carolina, took the gloves off. He tagged Gingrich as "an influence peddler in Washington" who had to "resign in disgrace" as House speaker: "We can't possibly retake the White House if the nominee is a person who was working with the chief lobbyist for Freddie Mac." Romney was referring to Gingrich's paid consulting gig for the government-backed organization that played a large role in the nation's housing crisis, but Gingrich says he served as a Freddie Mac "historian," not a lobbyist.
Even if Romney's tactic works, it is not clear that many evangelicals will come into his camp. In a move that could backfire, Romney has stuck to an economic message while largely ignoring social issues. Three days before the South Carolina primary-with Gingrich narrowing Romney's lead-Romney skipped a pro-life presidential forum in the conservative stronghold of Greenville, S.C. Romney, who converted to a pro-life position in 2004, also didn't respond to a voter guide questionnaire in Florida submitted by the conservative Florida Family Policy Council.
Romney stuck to his economic message during a Jan. 24 event at a shuttered drywall plant in Tampa. Speaking behind a banner that read, "Obama isn't working," Romney said that "the president puts his faith in government. I put my faith in the people of America." But Connor of the Center for a Just Society asks, "Can Romney be counted on to have core convictions on social issues? I don't think Romney has closed the sale on that. He hasn't really convinced evangelical voters that those views are not in large measure the product of political convenience."
Romney supporter Kelly Obrien, who says Romney is the "only candidate who can beat Obama," blamed his South Carolina loss and poll dip on skittishness about releasing his tax returns: "That rubbed people the wrong way." Romney did eventually release two years of returns on Jan. 24, showing an annual income of $21.7 million in 2010 and an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent.
Romney's economic focus clearly has its appeal in the midst of the nation's employment woes. Tom Larson, 46 and the owner of a Florida landscaping business, said he supports Romney because he knows what "a businessman can do when he sets his mind to it." Ask Larson about Gingrich, and he shakes his head. "Newt strikes me as a more intelligent Joe Biden," Larson added. "He knows the ins and outs, but every once in a while he makes a goof. That will hurt him in the national election."
The clear advantage Romney holds over the rest of the field is money. The pro-Romney faction was expected to invest about $13 million in Florida media, but a wealthy couple (see sidebar below) has donated $10 million this year to a pro-Gingrich super PAC.
This is the kind of money that Santorum, who told reporters after the Jan. 23 Tampa debate that his campaign recently raised $170,000 in one day, will have trouble matching. Santorum, though, argues that high volatility means the presidential primary race "will change a lot, and it is going to continue to be dynamic." After a recent appearance at a Baptist church in Naples, Fla., he said, "Our campaign has a lot of legs, and we are going to go on and fight this battle for weeks and months to come."
Santorum was not topping 14 percent in any of the Florida polls, despite endorsements from high-profile evangelicals like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Gary Bauer. One leading Florida social conservative, John Stemberger, has endorsed Santorum but says those top evangelical endorsements were "a strategic mistake" because they came too late to help in South Carolina. Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, also said Gingrich has spoken about his moral failure during private meetings with pastors: "Many are willing to overlook it because we are in a desperate situation in this country."
Santorum saw success in Iowa because he spent a lot of time in the state in 2011, but that approach cannot work as well in larger states like Florida, where numerous expensive media markets exist. "I like Santorum too, I'm just not as familiar with him," said Christine Young, a practicing Anglican who calls herself strongly pro-life and who came to a Jan. 23 Gingrich rally outside a Tampa church. Gingrich could be the winner if Santorum falters: In a poll of Santorum supporters, 50 percent said Gingrich was their second choice while 23 percent chose Romney.
So far candidate after candidate during the 2011-2012 GOP Tour D'America has broken away from the Republican peleton, only to fall back to the pack. Regardless of who does the final, successful breakaway, most conservatives expect Republicans eventually to put aside the bickering and unite. Fran Perry, 49, left his sales job in Connecticut this year and moved down to Florida to volunteer for the Romney campaign. Calling this the most important election in his lifetime, Perry liked Romney's combination of government and business experiences. "But I will support whoever gets the nomination," he said. "The disaster in the White House can't be allowed to happen for another four years."
Last June, Newt Gingrich's campaign was on life support. Even after its much publicized resurgence, he managed only 4th place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So how did he beat Mitt Romney by a double-digit margin in South Carolina just two weeks later? With money from billionaire gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson had his first big score as co-owner of the computer super-conference COMDEX. When Adelson and his partners sold COMDEX in 1995, his take exceeded $500 million.
By then Adelson was heavily invested in the gambling industry. He owned casinos in Las Vegas and Macao, a former Portuguese colony-now part of China-and gambling mecca for the Far East. His holdings expanded to gambling resorts in the Philippines. He took his company public in 2004. Forbes estimated his net worth in 2011 at $23.3 billion, making him the 16th-richest man in the world.
Adelson has supported Gingrich's nonprofits for years, but in the past two months alone, he and his wife Miriam gave at least $10 million to super-PACs associated with Gingrich. Nearly $4 million went to buy media in South Carolina alone.
The gifts concern Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who says "gambling money is terribly corrosive." He adds, "Normally, when you give $10 million, you expect something in return."
The Adelsons claim they simply like Gingrich's policies, especially his support of Israel. The Adelsons have been long-time supporters of pro-Israel causes. Since 2007, their family foundation has given $100 million to Birthright Israel, which funds trips to Israel for Jewish youth.
But it's also true, says Grove City College professor Warren Throckmorton, that Gingrich has been a long-time friend to gambling. Throckmorton says that when Gingrich was speaker of the House he "gutted" a House commission investigating the gambling industry by refusing to give it subpoena power. Gingrich also fought attempts by the IRS to tax as income the meals casinos provide their workers.
Throckmorton says, "Gambling destroys families. So while none of this is illegal, it is ironic, to say the least, that Gingrich is courting evangelical and family values voters with money that comes directly from the gambling industry."