GOP Candidates Gear Up Sunshine State Campaigns

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Jan. 25 Junkie from Orlando

Guests

Ken Rudin, Political Junkie columnist, NPR
Lucy Morgan, senior correspondent, Tampa Bay Times
Aubrey Jewett, political scientist, University of Central Florida
Leonard Curry, chairman, Republican Party of Florida

Florida's GOP primary has become a battleground for the four remaining Republican hopefuls in the 2012 presidential race. The state's size and population are much larger than other primary states', and TV advertising is expected to play its largest role yet in the campaign.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Orlando. Gabby Giffords bows out of Congress, Michele Bachmann vows to return, Newt reborn in South Carolina, while Santorum struggles to stay afloat. It's Wednesday and time for a...

RICK SANTORUM: These are not cogent thoughts...

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. This week we're at member station WMFE in Orlando, less than a week before the suddenly all-important Florida primary, where there are now four GOP presidential hopefuls still standing.

Rick Perry quit even before the South Carolina vote. That vaulted Newt to the top of the national polls again as the air of inevitability leaks out of the Romney balloon. In Jersey, veteran Democratic Senator Bob Menendez gets a formidable opponent, and the Supreme Court orders new congressional lines in Texas.

In a few minutes, we'll focus on the Florida primary, and later in this jumbo edition of the Political Junkie, the Florida GOP state chairman joins us. But first, Political Junkie here with us - Ken Rudin's in the studio at WMFE. We begin, as we always do, with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Well, OK, we know that four years ago in the Florida primary, Hillary Clinton won the primary but did not get the nomination. Before Hillary Clinton, who was the last person to win the primary in Florida but failed to win the nomination?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the last person before Hillary Clinton to win the Florida primary but lose his or her's party nomination, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Of course the winner gets the fabulous no-prize T-shirt in exchange for a promise of a digital image of themselves for our wall of shame.

And Ken, we begin when we can with actual votes. South Carolina, wow.

RUDIN: Well, you know, that seems like months ago, and it was only last Saturday, but it was a thumping, as Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney 40 to 28 percent, a 12-point victory, far better than any of the polls indicated. As you say, it did burst a balloon in the Mitt Romney inevitability argument and once again resuscitates Newt Gingrich, whose campaign was all but dead in June, came back to be a frontrunner for a while in December and then also deflated as he got hit by ads in Iowa.

But now he has the momentum in this race.

CONAN: And he is, at least according to one Mitt Romney endorser, a viable candidate. This is Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, the Republican who's a supporter of Mitt Romney. It didn't sound that way when he talked on CBS's "Face the Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Electability was the issue before South Carolina primary, during the primary, and on voting day, and Newt won. He's the guy that we saw, 40 percent of us, the best to go into the arena and beat Barack Obama.

CONAN: So that's one of Mitt Romney's supporters.

RUDIN: I actually didn't know he was a Mitt Romney supporter. I didn't know that. But anyway, but I thought still the fact is that a lot of people who - the argument for Mitt Romney all along had been he is the guy who is best able to defeat President Obama. And if you looked at the exit polls coming out of South Carolina, Gingrich won on everything, including electability, including - and also from women.

Remember the bombshell from Marianne Gingrich about the open marriage, something that Neal Conan and I have, I think we can admit that now...

CONAN: We do? You never told me.

RUDIN: Anyway, but so - and he even did well with women. He did well with almost every demographic. Ron Paul did well with younger voters.

CONAN: As he always does.

RUDIN: As he always does. And Romney did best with older voters, but it seemed like Gingrich, you know, he also carried 43 of the state's 46 counties, truly a landslide.

CONAN: And here's somebody who does sound like a Mitt Romney surrogate, it's the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I think Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party over time. Whether he'll do it again in the future, I don't know, but Governor Romney never has.

CONAN: And of course that is more of an attack on - and Romney has now been forced to go on the attack here in Florida.

RUDIN: Well, perhaps one of the reasons that Mitt Romney didn't do as well in South Carolina was the fact that some people said that he was not as aggressive. He didn't have the fire in the belly, at least in the debates, and Gingrich, if nothing else, is a very effective debater.

But at the same time, he does have the flaws. He was reprimanded by Congress. He did resign as speaker after 1998, and Mitt Romney was not shy about bringing that up during the debate.

CONAN: Nor, of course, the payments he received from Freddie Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: If your entities are getting paid by health companies that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressman and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you'd like; I call it influence-peddling.

CONAN: Influence-peddling is the allegation. If it smells like a lobbyist, if it walks like a lobbyist, if it talks like a lobbyist, it's a lobbyist.

RUDIN: And not a historian, and you know, for all the focus on Mitt Romney's tax returns, and of course Mitt Romney was very clever to release them on the Monday during the State of the Union address and before a debate, you know...

CONAN: Between the two debates.

RUDIN: Between the two debates. So he tried to get that issue gone from the campaign dialogue. He didn't completely do it, but now the onus seems to be on Newt Gingrich and his Freddie Mac contract.

CONAN: In the meantime, Newt Gingrich is running a more presidential - i.e., against Barack Obama, campaign as Mitt Romney used to try to do, and here's been one of his major themes here in the state of Florida, where he's talking about regime change 90 miles south of Miami.

NEWT GINGRICH: I guess the only thing I would suggest is I don't think that Fidel's going to meet his maker. I think he's going to go to the other place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: Second, I would suggest to you - I would suggest that the policy of the United States should be aggressively to overthrow the regime.

CONAN: And that's something that he hopes will play well in South Florida.

RUDIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Newt Gingrich obviously wants a regime change not only in Havana but in Washington, D.C.

CONAN: At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they have the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is: Before Hillary Clinton, the last person to win the Florida primary but lose the nomination of their party. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Laura(ph), and Laura's with us from Green Bay in Wisconsin.

LAURA: Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

LAURA: My guess is Howard Dean.

CONAN: That's a scream.

RUDIN: The Dean people are going to be so upset with you, Neal, as I am, even though we have an open marriage. No, Howard Dean did not win the 2004 primary in Florida. It was won by John Kerry, who won the nomination.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we go next to - this is Troy. We're trying to get - maybe that Line 7 is not working. Instead we'll go to Line 1, and Sherry's(ph) on the line, Sherry with us from Southport in North Carolina.

SHERRY: Rudy Giuliani.

RUDIN: Well, that's an interesting point because Rudy Giuliani...

CONAN: Really hoped he would.

RUDIN: Matter of fact, he based his whole 2008 campaign on the Florida primary and bypassed Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, but by doing that, he was ignored by the voters here, and he went on to finishing a poor third in the primary, which was won by John McCain.

SHERRY: OK.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sherry, and let's go next to - this is Matt, and Matt with us from Portsmouth, Arkansas.

MATT: Yes, is it Bob Dole?

RUDIN: Well, Bob Dole did win the primary in 1996, and of course he was the nominee. He didn't win the primary in 1988, but he wasn't the nominee in 1988. So in other words...

CONAN: If you mix and match, you get it right.

RUDIN: But it was not Bob Dole.

CONAN: Nice try, thanks very much.

MATT: Thanks.

CONAN: And let's go to - this is Gabriel(ph), Gabriel with us from Boston.

GABRIEL: Hi there, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

GABRIEL: I believe the answer is Gary Hart.

RUDIN: Gary Hart is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: In 1984, remember he came - he was second place in Iowa, which propelled him to a victory in New Hampshire, and while he was losing elsewhere in the South to Walter Mondale, he really beat Mondale pretty handily in Florida. But ironically, because he was not prepared, he did not win most of the delegates, but he did win the primary. Gary Hart in 1984 is the correct answer.

CONAN: Stay on the line, Gabriel, and we'll collect your particulars and send you off a fabulous Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt in exchange for your promise of a digital picture of yourself to post it on our wall of shame.

GABRIEL: With pleasure, and of course no monkey business.

CONAN: Glad you said that and not me. Hold on. Thanks and congratulations.

RUDIN: Actually, this is perfect weather to be wearing a Political Junkie T-shirt.

CONAN: It is perfect weather for a Political Junkie T-shirt. In the meantime, the president was dressed rather more elegantly last night at the State of the Union message, where typically - well, if Osawatomie, Kansas was the start of his campaign, he followed up last night in the State of the Union message, where of course he's staring right at the Republicans he's pretty much running against.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

CONAN: And that is the theme that he hit in Kansas. He hit it again last night. We can expect to hear that for the next several months.

RUDIN: And of course it came at a time when Mitt Romney is telling the world that he is paying 14 percent of his income in taxes and while most of the country is paying much more. President Obama said that the minimum tax rate should be 30 percent. It's about income distribution and inequality, and having Romney's taxes come out the same week as the State of the Union was a good - a bonus for the president.

CONAN: In the meantime, Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, not a presidential candidate this year, as many hoped he would be, came out, and he did the Republican rebuttal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Here were are four years later. They can't find a job. Why should they support him? We're living at a time with 13 million people out of work, four million people out of work for more than a year. Forty-nine million Americans living below the poverty line. Undue influence by Obama campaign supporters. Things are not going in the right direction, they're going in the wrong direction.

CONAN: And Mitch Daniels really able to impersonate all those voices. That's actually not true. That's a Republican National Committee ad. We played the wrong cut of tape there, and I apologize for that. That was my mistake. But that is an ad the Republican National Committee has started to run against Barack Obama in places like Virginia and North Carolina, important states for Barack Obama.

RUDIN: Look, we heard the president last night. I mean, obviously what it is is basically sort of like - not so much laying out his campaign for re-election, but it's pointing out that the Republicans - here's how he differs from the Republican Party. While they are beating each other up, here's what he's doing for the middle class. Here's what he's doing for the unemployed.

And, you know, while (technical difficulties) numbers are falling down, Mitt Romney's approval numbers are decreasing rapidly as he's getting into that gutter, you know, battle with Newt Gingrich, the president's numbers are inching up.

CONAN: And the president is beginning to run his first real political ad, and let's take a listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNDENTIFIED MAN: For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent. President Obama kept his promise to toughen ethics rules and strengthen America's energy economy.

OBAMA: I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message.

CONAN: And it certainly didn't hurt the president of the United States to, the day after his State of the Union speech, be able to announce that an American hostage and a Danish hostage had been rescued by U.S. Special Forces in Somalia.

RUDIN: Which comes on the heels of the Osama bin Laden and the Gaddafi death in Libya, which the president mentioned in the State of the Union.

CONAN: It's Political Junkie day in Orlando, Florida this week, ahead of next week's primary. Up next, we want to hear from Florida primary voters. Have you made up your mind yet? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the studios of member station WMFE in Orlando, less than a week before what's become the all-important Florida primary. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, is here with us. And Ken, do we have a ScuttleButton winner this week?

RUDIN: We did, actually. We failed to mention it last week, so we're going back two weeks.

CONAN: Two weeks...

RUDIN: Matter of fact, this is how old the puzzle is. The solution was New Hampshire primary, and that was like several years ago. But the winner was Annette Hernandez(ph) of San Francisco.

CONAN: And she will, of course, get a Political Junkie T-shirt for her winning entry, and so that's just two weeks ago, there wasn't one last week?

RUDIN: There was, but we don't announce two winners in a row.

CONAN: Oh, well, I didn't know that.

RUDIN: And besides, San Francisco hasn't been winning much lately, so it would be nice if somebody...

CONAN: Ooh, ooh, twisting the knife. In the meantime, a correction. I misidentified Lindsey Graham as a Romney supporter, and that - as an endorser. He may be a supporter, but that remains to be seen. I apologize for the mistake. You can find Ken's latest ScuttleButton puzzle and Ken's Political Junkie column at npr.org/junkie.

We are not the only ones touring the Sunshine State this week. Three of the four GOP candidates are here trying to drum up support before Tuesday's vote. Florida, unlike any other primary or caucus state thus far, the GOP primary is only open to registered Republicans. The state's population is significantly larger than New Hampshire, South Carolina or Iowa, and it's got several expensive media markets.

Advertising will likely play a major role here over the next six days. We want to hear from Florida primary voters. Have you made up your mind yet? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also drop us an email, talk@npr.org.

Joining us here in the studio in Orlando, Lucy Morgan, a senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. Nice to meet you in person.

LUCY MORGAN: Good to meet you.

CONAN: And thanks for taking the drive all the way from Tallahassee for us. And Florida moved up its primary before the last presidential election to gain national prominence. Well, that certainly seems to have worked out.

MORGAN: I guess so. They - for the moment, they've lost half their delegates, but they have hopes of getting them back from the nominee.

CONAN: Yeah, they did last time around when they did this, as the Republican Party decided oh well, let bygones be bygones.

MORGAN: Well, you know, they do want votes.

CONAN: And it's interesting, we're saying - have Florida voters made up their minds? A lot of Florida voters have already made up their minds. If fact, they already voted.

MORGAN: A couple hundred thousand have already voted, and there are like 300,000 absentee requests or so. So we're well on the way to the election.

CONAN: And also with us here in the studio is Aubrey Jewett. He's a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, just down the road from us here, and nice of you to come in as well.

AUBREY JEWETT: Great to be here today.

CONAN: And we often hear Florida is such a diverse and huge place. I've heard it described, I think by you, as not a state so much as a country.

JEWETT: Well, yeah, it has 10 media markets. You referenced that earlier, how many different media markets there are. And we are just very diverse. The diversity in Florida is really mirroring what you're seeing across the country. We have a large Hispanic population, large black population, a very large elderly population, and of course lots of baby boomers, families with kids. So it's quite diverse.

CONAN: The ethnic mix also very different from, well, South Carolina for sure.

JEWETT: Absolutely. You know, another reason why Florida is taking its proper place as early in the primary is we do represent the diversity of the country a lot better, I think, than any of the previous states.

CONAN: And Lucy Morgan, all those media markets, if you're going to run in Florida, you need an organization, you need money, you need to have things established.

MORGAN: Lots of money. You really need lots of money, and he who has bought the airwaves may dominate, which I suspect may be Romney.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Well, Lucy, I have a question about that because we're talking about money, and Romney does have that, and we're talking about organization in a state that needs organization, and Romney has that too. But Newt Gingrich has momentum, and we saw that coming out of South Carolina. You know, Romney won New Hampshire handily. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina handily. What do you make of the money versus the organize - I'm sorry, the money-versus-the-momentum argument?

MORGAN: I think that the establishment Republicans, and the money is behind Romney at the moment. Those make up the early voters a lot. I think this is going to be a close race in Florida, that Romney - it was Romney's to lose, and the weapon that Mitt(ph) was handed in South Carolina by John King and ABC helped him surge ahead.

However, we've seen him surge before, only to sort of fall back, and I think that may well happen to him here.

RUDIN: Does the Freddie Mac argument that Romney's making against Newt Gingrich resonate in Florida?

MORGAN: I think it does in some areas of Florida. The whole housing industry problem is bigger here certainly than it was in South Carolina, and in New Hampshire and Iowa as well. So the housing thing does resonate here.

The question I have is how much Romney's own finances are going to play into this. I suspect there won't be as much animosity toward his wealth here as there would have been in South Carolina, particularly.

CONAN: Aubrey Jewett, I have to follow that up. In South Carolina, we had the Tea Party governor endorse Mitt Romney, the establishment candidate. That didn't work out so well. Here in Florida, you have a former governor, Jeb Bush, who sits over all of this like the...

JEWETT: Godfather of Republican politics.

CONAN: You said it, I didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But he hasn't endorsed anybody.

MORGAN: No, and he's not.

JEWETT: Yeah, I think he's staying out of it, and I think our governor, I think I read the governor has also refused to endorse anybody. You know, interestingly, four years ago Charlie Crist waited until about three days before the election and jumped in on the McCain bandwagon and then took credit when McCain won. But this time around, I don't think we're going to see any endorsements from the highest profile leaders in Republican politics.

RUDIN: Aubrey, we compare the electorate in Florida, the Republican electorate in Florida, with South Carolina. South Carolina is much more conservative, more Tea Party-oriented. But in the 2010 primary for governor here, Rick Scott, a Tea Party guy, beat the establishment guy, Bill McCollum.

JEWETT: He did, and Lucy and I were talking about this just a little bit earlier off the air. In Florida, Bill McCollum, who was a 20-year very conservative Republican congressman and then a very conservative attorney general, he was beaten by Rick Scott, who was able to convince Republicans in Florida that Bill McCollum was not conservative enough.

MORGAN: But he had a $75 million advantage. He spent $75 million of his own money to flood the market with ads.

JEWETT: He did, and - but it does raise the question - it's the question, of course, that Republicans have been asking about Mitt Romney for the last several months, and is he conservative enough, can they embrace him and - or are they still just looking? And right now it's just so tight in Florida.

Up till about a week ago, I was among the many who thought, OK, in the end, Romney's going to pull it out, but I'll tell you: He is in a world of trouble right now in Florida. He may hang on, but Gingrich is really surging in the polls.

CONAN: Lucy Morgan, what do you think?

MORGAN: I think Romney will pull it out. The newest poll, the better of the polls, Quinnipiac, came out this morning giving Romney a one-point advantage, within the margin of error. But I think the advantage he has is the early vote and the establishment Republicans who are behind him.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line, 800-989-8255. Florida primary voters, have you made up your minds yet? We'll start with Marie(ph), and Marie's on with us from Fort Lauderdale.

MARIE: Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon, go ahead, please.

MARIE: Yes, well, I have decided to shift gears. Instead of voting Democrat, I am voting for Mitt Romney because I am a very dissatisfied Democratic voter. As a Haitian-American, I have seen no change in the status of a lot of my friends as far as finances are concerned. A lot of them have lost their houses, and all the promises that were made during the campaign, none of them have been accomplished. So I am switching my gears to see if I can vote for capitalism.

CONAN: And so vote for Mitt Romney. Why Mitt Romney, if you're going to switch to vote Republican, among the other Republicans?

MARIE: Well, the other candidates, they just, they do not appeal to me. Gingrich has a lot of baggage. Mitt Romney is a capitalist. He has made a lot of money, and I - he stands for what I believe the American dream is all about - fighting...

MORGAN: Did you change your registration to Republican?

MARIE: Yes, I have.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Marie, appreciate it.

MARIE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller on, and let's go to Amber(ph), Amber's with us from Tallahassee.

AMBER: Yes.

CONAN: Amber, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

AMBER: I have decided to vote for Ron Paul.

CONAN: And why?

AMBER: I guess what it boils down to for me is a smaller and limited, more federal government and the restoration of state rights. And I believe that he'll represent me in that way.

CONAN: Amber, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

And Ron Paul...

MORGAN: I wonder if Ron Paul might pick up some votes out of this. We have a growing independent registration of voters in Florida, and if you assume that there will be people who resent Mitt Romney's money and the way - and the taxes he paid and others who will resent Gingrich's personal life, I wonder if Ron Paul might not be the beneficiary of some of that.

CONAN: Ken, though, we keep hearing Ron Paul, he's here for the debates, but because it's a winner-take-all primary, he's ducking out.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. He's not campaigning in the state, and obviously he's looking toward the caucus states, where the delegates are chosen proportionally.

MORGAN: Except in North Florida, the people standing on street corners with signs are holding Ron Paul signs.

RUDIN: And we haven't mentioned Rick Santorum either. Is he a factor here at all?

MORGAN: Less so, I think. But certainly, he'll get some votes. There are evangelicals that will go to Santorum that will run away from the others.

CONAN: But I would assume, Aubrey, that evangelicals less a factor than they were in Iowa and South Carolina.

JEWETT: Yeah. I think in the - within the Republican base of Florida, you'll see a lot - more moderates and just a lot more economic voters and less of the Christian conservatives, social conservatives. There's certainly numerically a lot of them, but as a percentage of the Republican Party in Florida not nearly as much as South Carolina, nor in the Iowa caucus for sure.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to Oviedo. Oviedo with us - excuse me. David is with us from Oviedo, in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVID: Good afternoon. Yeah...

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVID: ...I am an independent who often leans toward the Republican Party, but I'm looking at the selection of candidates this time, and I'm trying to maintain a little bit of distance and not get drawn in by all the pre-election hoopla. And I have to ask myself, are these the best that our political system can come up with? We've got a - one candidate, a leading candidate in the Republican Party who's been publically discredited by - in his last office. Another one who claims to be an outsider business person, but yet, you know, he's clearly an insider and part of a privileged class. The only - to me - the only one with any creditability in the Republican Party is Ron Paul, who's got some consistency in what he's saying.

CONAN: And do you plan to make your vote for Ron Paul then?

DAVID: Well, yeah, I guess that's who I am leading - leaning towards, but, you know, at this point, again, I find myself at 54 years old - once again, I'm not voting for somebody. I'm voting against the other candidates. And it just seems like in the last three, two to three presidential elections, the candidate that have been put forward, I just cannot believe that they're the best minds, the best thinkers, the most effective politician that this system can put forward. (Unintelligible).

CONAN: I wonder, Lucy Morgan, we, you know, that's an interesting point of view, and I think that there are a fair number of Republicans who feel that way.

MORGAN: Oh, I talk to them every day. There are a lot of Republicans who really regret the final lineup they have to choose from; many of whom would like to say Jeb Bush or somebody like him jump into this race. I am convinced that Jeb has no intent of jumping in this race, that if he ever runs for president, it would be at least four years from now.

CONAN: And, Aubrey Jewett, would you agree?

JEWETT: Absolutely. And I was thinking back. I think Tim Pawlenty actually made a big mistake when he dropped out after that Iowa straw poll. We saw every other viable Republican race to the top as, again, as Republicans were searching for the not-Romney candidate. And I'm sure if he had stayed in long enough, he would have found himself on top eventually. And I think he would have been a very credible candidate, as a former governor and sort of solid on policy and probably good with Tea Party and conservatives, et cetera. But fact is, you know, he - I think he just got a little scared that Michele Bachmann was doing too well, and he dropped out.

CONAN: We're talking on The Political Junkie this week with Lucy Morgan, who's a senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times, and Aubrey Jewett, political scientist at the University of Central Florida. Of course, Ken Rudin is with us. We're in Orlando, Florida today, less than a week ahead of the primary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: And one P.S. to the - to David's point, the caller: dissatisfaction with candidates is not new. In 1960, Democrats were saying, is Jack Kennedy the best we could do? He's a, you know, a young guy. He's inexperienced. He's too green. I mean, can't we do better than John F. Kennedy? So that dissatisfaction, we've been around for a long time.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Mike, and Mike is on the line with us from Tampa.

MIKE: Hello, folks. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

MIKE: You kind of covered some of my stuff, but I'm just concerned about who to vote for. I'm an evangelical Christian and, you know, a little concerned about Romney's waffling on abortion. And I don't really want to say much about Gingrich. I'm not sure about what to do with Santorum. I really don't know.

CONAN: So you're in a bit of a quandary. Santorum, we're told, at least by the evangelical powers that be that met in Texas the other weekend, that your votes should go to him.

MIKE: Well, I've heard that, and I don't know - I - it's the lobbying stuff that he was involved in and some of that, that kind of makes me a little nervous. So I'm just not excited, and that doesn't feel good. I want to be able to be excited about somebody to vote for and get behind him. And I just don't feel that way.

CONAN: That's interesting. Lucy Morgan, have you seen excitement on the Republican side this year?

MORGAN: Yeah, a lot of people are excited but not for the reasons you would expect in an election. I wonder if Aubrey might know the breakdown between men and women registered as Republicans in Florida because I do think that the women's vote is unlikely to go to Gingrich in a mass number. If the people I have heard from are any example because a lot of the women who know what Gingrich's background is are furious with him.

RUDIN: But women voted for Gingrich in South Carolina.

MORGAN: I understand that. And Nikki Haley didn't. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JEWETT: And then, that Quinnipiac poll that you mentioned earlier, Lucy, I looked at some of the breakdowns, and there is the gender gap that you mentioned in Florida right now in the polls, that men were more supportive of Gingrich - Republican men, I should say. And Republican women were more supportive of Romney.

CONAN: What characteristic - as we look at the jigsaw puzzle that is the state of Florida and all the different places it is, from the panhandle all the way down to South Beach and Key West, very different places - what issue, if there is an issue, is going to distinguish these candidates, Aubrey, do you think?

JEWETT: Well...

MORGAN: The...

CONAN: Go ahead, Lucy.

MORGAN: ...economy perhaps. We are a state that's had very high unemployment, and a lot of people losing their houses. I think - I have to believe that plays into Romney's hand, a successful businessman. If you look at who - if you're thinking of how the average voter would look, but I don't know that it does.

CONAN: Aubrey?

JEWETT: Yeah. And I was going to agree that the economy and jobs and the housing issues, theoretically, those are - well, not theoretically. Those are the most important issues to Florida voters, including most Republican voters. But as far as what distinguishes the candidates in the minds of the voters right now, I'm really not sure it's going to come down to issue base, I think, and this is bad news for Romney. I think it's going to be a more visceral, you know, Republicans are looking for someone that's more of the attack-style politics and somebody that they, at least in their view, is a more trusted conservative.

For Gingrich, that's good news. He built a long reputation as a conservative, you know, helping the Republicans take control of Congress in '94. Of course, since he got out of office, he's actually in a number of occasions not been so conservative.

CONAN: Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, thanks very much for your time today. Lucy Morgan, thank you, too.

MORGAN: Thank you. Thanks.

CONAN: Lucy Morgan, a senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. Political junkie Ken Rudin is going to stay with us. In a moment, we'll stay and talk with the state chairman of the Republican Florida Party. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin is with us here in the studio at WMFE in Orlando, less than a week ahead of the critical primary here in the state of Florida. And joining us now is - it's going to be a winner-take-all front primary with 50 delegates at stake, more than any other primary to this point. It's a state Barack Obama carried in 2008, one the Democrats hope to hold onto. But, well, let's get through the primary first. If you plan - voters, if you plan to vote in the Republican primary, have you made up your mind? 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org.

Joining us now on the phone from Jacksonville is Leonard Curry, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. And, Chairman Curry, nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

LEONARD CURRY: It's good to be with you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And a lot of people thought after three contests, this presidential - this primary season would effectively be over by now.

CURRY: That - a couple of weeks ago, that was definitely what the pundits were saying. We've been saying for a year, though, that it would be all eyes on Florida and all about Florida when we set our primary date, and here we are, and it is certainly all about Florida.

CONAN: You took a risk changing your primary date. You are technically in violation of party rules. And could lose what, half your delegates?

CURRY: Yeah. Right now, we are - we would have had 99 delegates, and we have 50 which will be winner-take-all. But let me just clarify. The primary date is governed on - is under Florida statute, that the statutory authority runs with the - sits with the Florida legislature, not with the party. So they set the date at January 31st. As a sovereign state, they did what they thought, and we're acting in the best interest of over four million registered Republicans in the state of Florida.

I'm not happy that we lost our delegates, but I do think that - I've always said I think it's important that we go early, and I understand why the legislature did what it did.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Well, Mr. Chairman, that's a good question because what happened four years ago, the same thing, the Democrats lost all their delegates. And as a matter of fact, the DNC, Howard Dean - Chairman Howard Dean told the candidates not to even campaign in Florida. And Hillary Clinton basically won a meaningless victory. And the Republicans lost half their delegation. And yet - I mean, couldn't Florida still be early but just not in January? Couldn't it be the first week of February?

CURRY: Well - and again, the committee that met that made this decision, based on what they were hearing around the country, and there was a lot of talk about a lot of other states moving their dates up, they believed that if they didn't put a stake in the ground early and lock up January 31st, that there was a good chance that we would not be right behind South Carolina. So based on an analysis, they made a decision. Agree or disagree with it, it's where we are now. And it's turned out to be - work out for us. All eyes on Florida, winner take all, 50 delegates, it's a big deal.

CONAN: I have to tell you after we've been to campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, it's kind of nice to be in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CURRY: We've had an unusually warm winter this year, so I'm not complaining. It's been very pleasant.

CONAN: Actually, it was warm in Iowa, too, but comparatively warm.

RUDIN: But it was very hot during the debates.

CONAN: It was very hot during the debates.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I have to ask you, you have not endorsed anybody. So I wonder, how do you handicap the race right now?

CURRY: I think it's wide open. The - with Newt winning South Carolina, each candidate having won three states. It's wide open. And it's - I expect it to be pretty volatile up through - right up to the primary date. Our last debate is in Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday night this week. And if you look at how important these debates have been, how big of a role they played in voters making decisions, I'm arguing that this is - we've been in the playoffs all along, and this is the Super Bowl of debates. And this is where - this is the big game for each of these candidates to win Florida.

CONAN: And given your knowledge of the state, if somebody tries to drop the gloves and mix it up - there'd been some pretty stinging attacks starting in South Carolina and moving on down here to Florida - does that work with Florida voters?

CURRY: You know, if all - if everybody stays negative, it will work. I believe that if a candidate is - can come out in a debate with a clear, compelling message and argument - moral argument for the free market and job creation and how that will affect people's lives and contrast that with how big government programs have failed and really have not lifted anyone out of poverty, if someone can come with that message, I believe that the voters will respond to that.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Mr. Chairman, also let me ask you a question that I asked the two previous guests. We always talked about Florida being a very important state with organization and money. It's a big state with expensive markets and ostensibly that should help Mitt Romney, but then you do have the momentum of Newt Gingrich coming from South Carolina. What prevails in a state like this?

CURRY: Yeah. Money being able to play in the 10 media markets and having significant money and resources and organization is very important. But the debates have changed the game this year. It seems, four years ago – it was so long ago - but it seems to me the debates have played a much bigger role, that the (unintelligible) media that's coming out of this debate - these debates gives someone a chance in Florida that maybe doesn't have the historical fund that you'd have to have to be competitive here.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Tom, and Tom is on the line from Pensacola.

TOM: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Tom.

TOM: I'd like to voice my support for Newt Gingrich and...

CONAN: And why are you voting for the former speaker?

TOM: I'm voting for the former speaker because in the '90s he got so much of the conservative agenda passed with the Contract of America. And...

CONAN: Contract of - with America, Ken, we remember that as a remarkably effective campaign tool. Did it turn into actual legislation once the Republicans took office in 1994?

RUDIN: Well, some, yes, like welfare reform, working with President Clinton, but like terms limits, things like that, it did not. The thing about Newt Gingrich, he was always seen as more of a visionary that somebody in power able to implement his proposals.

TOM: Tom?

Yes, I'm still here.

CONAN: OK. So - but you believe he's the candidate who can make a real change in Washington?

TOM: Yes. And can I do a little bit of handicapping?

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: Well, up here in the panhandle, I believe that Newt Gingrich has a lot of support, and I believe that he has the best chance of carrying at least the northwestern counties of the state.

CONAN: Leonard Curry, what do you think of Tom's handicapping?

CURRY: I think it's wide open. Again, I really think that the voters - the polls are showing pretty much a dead heat right now between Romney and Gingrich. And I think that whichever of these two guys comes with a positive, compelling argument that how job creation and the free market will affect individual lives and allow us to fund education and reform other programs, that's going to be the candidate that will emerge victorious. If they stay negative, if it's all negativity, it's really a toss-up.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: All right. You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an email: Since so many snowbirds have second homes in Florida, is there evidence that some might vote twice in their home states too? Is there any mechanism to ensure that doesn't happen, Chairman Curry?

CURRY: I'm sure - yes. Our supervisor of elections in various counties, they have safeguards in place, and I'm sure that they're doing everything they can to ensure that we don't have either blatant voter fraud or someone who just makes an honest mistake.

CONAN: Well, let's go next to John, and John's on from Cape Coral in Florida. John?

JOHN: Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi, John. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Yeah. I'm casting my vote as a Republican. I've always voted as a Republican. I'm going to stick with Rick Santorum because I believe he is the one who's got the cleanest slate. He doesn't have all the baggage that Romney has with his IRS issues and that Gingrich has with his wife issues. So I think it's safe to say Santorum would have the least ammunition to go against with Obama. Obama would probably have not much to fire at him. So I'm going to go safe and go Santorum.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much for the call. Ken, that's interesting. We forgot to mention that I think the same day that the - just before the election here - in South Carolina, rather - it was just about the same day, it turned out, Rick Santorum won Iowa.

RUDIN: Yeah. He won by a whopping 34 votes as opposed to Mitt Romney winning it by six votes. But nobody seems to get advantage out of Iowa, and it doesn't seemed like Rick Santorum has either, even with, as you said, these - the group of evangelical leaders who, in Texas, said that Santorum is the right kind of candidate. But now it seems like - well, look. With Ron Paul disappeared from the state, Santorum seemed to be a bystander in the battle between Romney and Gingrich. It does seem like to be a two-person race right now.

CONAN: And, Leonard Curry, you said pretty a dead heat between Gingrich and Romney. Is this down to a two-man race?

CURRY: I mean right now, that's what the polls would indicate, but we've seen that we've been surprised so many times this election cycle, this primary season so far that - I mean, who knows. You know, there could be a surprise here between here and next week and could knock somebody off and someone else could emerge. But right now, based on polling, it's Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Mr. Curry, obviously President Obama won this state narrowly four years ago. Is the battle among the Republicans hurting their chances of taking the state back in November?

CURRY: I don't think so. Whatever our candidates - while I don't like the fact that we're in a circle of firing squad right now, we're beating each other up - President Obama is going to say the same thing, so what's out there now will just, he'll regurgitate and would come up anyway. So I don't think it's going to hurt us in the long run.

CONAN: Let's go next to Henry.

CURRY: I don't particularly care for it I want to see a vision, and I want to hear a vision, and I want to know the vision and the view for Florida and America, but I don't think it hurts us in the general.

CONAN: Henry is on the line with us from Miami.

HENRY: Hi. I love the program.

CONAN: Thank you.

HENRY: Yeah. I'm just calling to comment. I'm in Miami. And amongst my peers and the people I speak with, one of the big issues is everyone's opinion of electability, who can be the strongest opponent in November. And that comes up as more of a topic than any specific issue or stance in that regard. And I just want to get your guys' opinion on that.

CONAN: Do you see any great distinction, Chairman Curry, on the issues between, say, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum? And obviously you would have to say yes there is with Ron Paul, but those other three?

CURRY: No. I'd say that generally all of the candidates believe in the big picture that the party believes in, and which is more freedom and economic freedom and job creation, and that's how you affect people's lives, and that's how you fund a safety net to take care of people that are in trouble. But I just - I'd like to see somebody emerge with a compelling argument on that. So no, I don't see huge differences.

And even though Ron Paul has some ideas that are different than the other candidates, look, he's brought to the conversation some important things that I think are a healthy discussion.

CONAN: All right. Henry, thanks very much. You've not made up your mind, Henry?

HENRY: Yeah. I'm supporting Romney because we all believe he's the only one with a decent chance of winning.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HENRY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Curry, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Of course Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: Regarding Henry's call that we've just heard - the electability argument has been Romney's strength all along. But as Newt Gingrich said during the debate, and he's correct, the Democrats were salivating at the thought of running against Ronald Reagan in 1980, thinking he was the easiest to beat, and of course Reagan won a landslide over President Carter that year. So what we see as electable in January or February may be much different come November.

CONAN: And, Chairman Scott - I have to ask you. There is an element of the Republican establishment we keep hearing about. Well, former Governor Jeb Bush has not endorsed anybody. Governor Scott has not endorsed anybody, at least so far as we know. Senator Rubio has not endorsed anybody. Where is this establishment?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CURRY: I agree with you. I mean, you know, every - I hear every election cycle that the establishment hands the electorate a candidate, and that perplexes me because it actually takes registered voters to go to the polls on primary day and pick the candidate. So I don't get it, but people like to say it, and it is what it is.

CONAN: Chairman Curry, thanks very much for your time today, and we hope you have a successful primary. And who knows? Maybe you'll get those delegates back.

CURRY: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed the conversation.

CONAN: Leonard Curry is the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, on the line with us from Jacksonville, Florida. And Ken, a couple of things that we've not had the chance to get to. One is in the state of New Jersey, where Senator Bob Menendez certainly has, well, pretty formidable opposition.

RUDIN: Well, on two reasons. First of all, it's a state senator by the name of Joe Kyrillos. And what makes this a very interesting race is Kyrillos has a very strong ally of Chris Christie. Chris Christie, when he was a U.S. attorney, launched an investigation against Bob Menendez around some kind of financial stuff. So there's tremendous animosity between Chris Christie and Bob Menendez. And Kyrillos running as the Republican nominee, if he should get the nomination, will probably be seen as a referendum on Governor Christie.

CONAN: And here's an email we should really get to from Kelly in Orlando: I'd like to comment on the former caller's comment regarding Mitt Romney's IRS issues. What issues did Mitt have with the IRS? As I see it, he earned income and paid the tax rate as outlined in the Internal Revenue Code. Why should he be faulted for paying a lower tax rate than others if - as if he wrote the code? So that's an accurate statement, and so thanks very much for that correction.

Another senator, Mark Kirk from Illinois, just elected last time around, a young man in the hospital after a stroke.

RUDIN: Yeah. He's 52 years old. Over the weekend he had an emergency surgery. The doctors say it went better than expected, but he's not - it's unlikely that he'll have a complete physical recovery. He has some mental capacities and that's fine, but he will have major years of work to get his physical stamina back, and it may not be 100 percent. And that's what we saw with Tim Johnson, the senator from South Dakota, who suffered a stroke in 2006, still in a wheelchair, still has impaired speaking, but his mental facilities are back - faculties are back. But it's a sad thing. You know, Mark Kirk only 52 years old. And of course it comes on the same day - we're talking about Gabby Giffords, who's resigning from Congress a year after that horrific assassination attempt. And she announced today that, you know, she made it official today.

CONAN: And it is so dramatic how that gunfire, that incident in Tucson a little over a year ago, changed things. We might be talking about Gabby Giffords running for United States Senate from Arizona right now.

RUDIN: Well - but we also talked about, at that time, that this was going to - we would lower our voices. We will cool our tempers. We would all sit together, you know, Democrats and Republicans were sitting together, and that lasted all of 15 minutes. And, of course, it's a great sentiment, but it's not reality.

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin with us here in Orlando this week. We'll be back in Washington next week with our regular broadcast. Ken, as always, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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