What Would A Florida Win Mean For Romney?

Florida holds its Republican primary Tuesday. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the contest in Florida — and the road ahead.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Polls begin closing in Florida in just one hour. It's the biggest and most diverse state to have voted so far in the Republican presidential nominating context and soon, we'll know who the victor is. Joining us to talk about the state of the race is NPR's Mara Liasson. Hi there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, Mitt Romney has sounded confident campaigning in Florida these past few days. What would a win in Florida mean for his campaign?

LIASSON: Well, it would be a very big victory because it would put him back to being the virtual nominee. And a loss in Florida would have been absolutely devastating for him, and would've called into question the inevitability that he's tried to create for himself. That said, once we finish with Florida, only 115 delegates will be distributed. And that's about 10 percent of the 1,144 that you need. So, he's still a long way from actually being the nominee.

CORNISH: And what would - how big a setback would it be for Newt Gingrich if he was to lose this race, coming out of that big win in South Carolina?

LIASSON: Well, I think it would be a very big setback, not only because Gingrich would not have been able to capitalize on his momentum from South Carolina, but also because the road ahead - Nevada, Michigan, Arizona - look so Romney-friendly. The next debate - and debates are oxygen for an underfunded candidate like Gingrich - isn't until February 22nd, and we don't even know if Romney is going to show up to debate Gingrich then. But there aren't a lot of opportunities coming up for Gingrich to recoup. And that being said, there's also not a lot of incentive for him to drop out of the race as long as he can get himself around the country, keep talking on television.

CORNISH: Well, the race in Florida has featured a lot of negative advertising. According to one media analysis, more than 90 percent of the ads were negative. So what kind of impact is this likely to have going forward?

LIASSON: Well, the negative ads worked. Romney outspent Gingrich about five-to-one. At one point, he had 13,000 ads on the air in Florida, Gingrich had 200. So, the moral of the story is negative ads work. So, that means we're going to see more of them, a lot more of them. But there is an argument to be made that Romney's win came at a cost to him, not just because he might be seen as a negative campaigner but also because as he's been battling Gingrich and his other opponents, is negatives have gone up.

His favorability rating in the last Wall Street Journal poll dropped from 30 to 24. And in the Washington Post/ABC poll, among independent voters, his unfavorability has gone up 17 points. So, a lot of vulnerabilities of Romney's have been exposed during this campaign. That being said, he's still doing very, very well against the president in the hypothetical head-to-head matchups, particularly in swing states.

CORNISH: Mara, lastly, Florida held its primary earlier than Republican Party officials wanted. I believe it was penalized for that. Is this going to be the new normal in the primary schedule?

LIASSON: Well, I think so. I think that Florida was determined to have a place in the early states. It believes it's a battleground state. It's more representative of voters at large and Republicans than the other early states. Obviously, losing half their delegates didn't bother them at all.

CORNISH: They're down to 50 from 99, right?

LIASSON: They're down to 50. But this is internal Republican National Committee politics. And I don't see, going forward, how you're ever going to keep Florida down. The only thing the Republican Party hasn't tried is saying you don't get any delegates. But Florida believes that, in the end, delegates will be restored. So I think Florida is here to stay in the early lineup.

CORNISH: And either way, this would be far more delegates than we've seen in previous states.

LIASSON: Yes. And it really shows you that the Republican Party wasn't really willing to pull the trigger and say you can't have any delegates. It still left them with a big treasure trove. And candidates - in particular, Mitt Romney - really wanted Florida as a firewall, worked hard to get Florida to move up and now he's reaping the benefits.

CORNISH: NPR's national political correspondent, thanks so much, Mara Liasson.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: And you can follow results of the Florida primary tonight on many NPR stations and at NPR.org.

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