More than a dozen polls over the last week all show that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who by his own admission got beaten up badly in the South Carolina primary, is now on the cusp of a dramatic, double-digit Florida primary win.
Backed by millions of campaign dollars, seasoned strategists, and the Republican party establishment, Mr. Romney allowed an insurgent campaign by former congressman and Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich to gain traction in South Carolina – and send his own campaign in to a momentary tail-spin.
But Florida has been an entirely different story. Here are the five things Mr. Romney did right to get his leadership campaign back on track in the Sunshine State.
Leading the debate attack
Newt Gingrich was the great debater in two televised debates in South Carolina, hitting back at the debate moderators when they questioned him about allegations that he asked his second wife for an “open marriage” and his use of the term “food stamps president” to describe President Barack Obama.
Mr. Gingrich’s replies electrified the audiences and propelled him to a dramatic South Carolina win.
But in Florida, it was Mitt Romney who used the TV debates to attack Mr. Gingrich, describing Gingrich campaign attack ads that called Mr. Romney anti-immigrant as “inexcusable” and “repulsive.”
Mr. Romney’s replies were crisp, sharp and had enough fight to satisfy Republicans. They were debate performances made all the stronger next to Mr. Gingrich’s flat, feeble and unprepared performances.
The Romney team gave its candidate a new debate coach and plenty of preparation to win the Florida debates.
Releasing his tax records
Mitt Romney is a wealthy man with an estimated wealth of over $250-million. His supporters say he has a track record of business experience and success as one-time head of the investment firm Bain Capital.
But, when talking about this wealth and whether he would release his tax records, Mr. Romney came across in South Carolina as awkward and shifty. Mr. Gingrich, on the other hand, released his tax records and pointed audiences to the Gingrich campaign website so that they could view the records for themselves.
After the South Carolina defeat and in full campaign mode in Florida, Mr. Romney decided to release his tax records, arguing that in hindsight the issue had become a distraction on the campaign trail.
Strategically, it was a smart move. Mr. Romney released detailed tax records for 2010 and estimates for 2011. There were raised eyebrows over the low tax rate of 15 per cent on the $42-million he earned over 2010 and 2011, as well as the overseas accounts.
But his wealth and tax records did not define his Florida campaign. Instead, it was Mr. Romney who defined his opponent Mr. Gingrich and how he had earned his wealth.
Going on the Freddie Mac attack
Up until Florida, Mitt Romney had allowed his supporters and surrogates to attack Mr. Gingrich’s years as Speaker of the House of Representatives and his post-politics career as a paid consultant.
What changed in Florida is that Mr. Romney took the attack directly to Mr. Gingrich, describing him as a Republican leader who resigned in “disgrace” in the 1990s, and a man who used his political experience to become an “influence-peddler” for well-paid clients looking to influence Washington politicians.
In Florida, so-called ground zero in the U.S. mortgage and housing crisis, Mr. Romney homed in on Mr. Gingrich’s $1.6-million in earnings resulting from his paid consultant work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The Romney campaign relentlessly tried to link Mr. Gingrich to the mortgage crisis in a state where homeowner had suffered foreclosures and dramatic drops in the value of their homes.
When Mr. Gingrich tried to draw attention to the fact that Mr. Romney had investment in mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Mr. Romney deployed some of that handy research provided by his campaign team: “But have you checked your own investments?” he asked Mr. Gingrich during a televised debate in Jacksonville, Florida.
“You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
To which a sheepish and unprepared Mr. Gingrich replied: “Right.” The crowd applauded Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney finally got it right in Florida: sometimes you have to look your opponent in the eye and attack.
Depicting Gingrich as Mr. Washington Insider
In the race for the Republican leadership, who would have thought that the candidate who has the most experience in Washington, D.C. would be running the insurgent campaign against the party establishment with promises to the GOP grass-roots that he will shake-up the capital?
But that is exactly what Mr. Gingrich has been able to do.
In Florida, the Romney campaign has been able to focus the public’s attention on Mr. Gingrich’s Washington, D.C. track record and the fact that he was reprimanded on an ethics violation when he was Speaker of the House of Representatives more than 10 years ago.
It has been a sharp, relentless and effective attack on the campaign trail and in TV attack ads.
The message is clear: Mr. Gingrich is a Washington insider whereas Mr. Romney is the outsider who was making his mark as a businessman.
Getting under Newt’s skin
Mr. Gingrich has weathered the Romney campaign attacks and vowed to march all the way to the GOP convention in August. His attacks on Mr. Romney have shifted from calling him a “Massachusetts moderate” to describing him as a “Massachusetts liberal.”
But it would appear that there has been a deliberate effort to get under Mr. Gingrich’s skin, as U.S. commentators and reporters have observed.
A case in point: pro-Romney Congressional politicians being dispatched to Gingrich campaign rallies to speak to reporters and refute Mr. Gingrich’s claims.
This has resulted in tense moments and heated exchanges between the Gingrich campaign and pro-Romney politicians. But it has achieved the desired result to get under the skin of Mr. Gingrich and his campaign.
Eager to depict the Gingrich campaign as unnerved, Mr. Romney did not hesitate to deliver a parting shot on the eve of the Florida primary: “He has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other,” Mr. Romney told supporters in Dunedin, Florida.
“You just watch it and shake your head. It has been kind of painfully revealing to watch.”