As Polls Close, A Look At Florida's Primary
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. We've traveled through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and now to Florida. Polls are beginning to close there. And we begin this hour with our correspondents who have been following the two leading Republican presidential candidates: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. NPR's Ari Shapiro is with Romney in Tampa. NPR's Don Gonyea is with Gingrich in Orlando. Welcome to you both.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi Audie.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
CORNISH: So Ari, let's start with you. How did Mitt Romney spend primary day in Florida?
SHAPIRO: Well, originally he was scheduled to have a rally this morning, but the campaign cancelled, perhaps because they were feeling so confident. He ended up visiting his headquarters in Tampa and placing a few calls to surprised voters, saying yes, it really is me, Mitt Romney, but remember to go to the polls today. Then he had a news conference where people asked him what the lesson of Florida was. And he said the main lesson that he takes away is if you're attacked, you cannot just sit back and take it. You have to fight back, which of course he did in a very big way here in Florida, saturating the airwaves here with attack ads. I don't know if you can hear behind me. The audience seems to be going wild about something. I can't exactly see what they're responding to right now. But at any rate, he did not mention, when talking about the attacks, that it was in Iowa that he first started going after Newt Gingrich, and only then did Gingrich jump off his plan of keep it a clean race and starting attacking Romney back, and that's how the tit-for-tat began.
CORNISH: And Don, how did Newt Gingrich spend his time?
GONYEA: Well, he was not confident, as Governor Romney seems to have been. But he was still defiant. And when I say not confident, Newt Gingrich is certainly a confident guy. Anybody's who's watched him knows that. But he spent this day taking nothing for granted. And they noise you hear now, they're testing the sound system and we're getting some kind of pop music or disco played in here in the ballroom where the party will be tonight.
But listen, Speaker Gingrich went from Orlando to Lakeland to, you know, other small towns near Tampa, to, finally to the town of Celebration, Florida. That's a planned community. It's near Disneyworld. His big bus pulled up and he basically, today, engaged in retail politics all day. They parked the bus next to a park. He and his wife, Callista, would get out and they would form a receiving line - or the people waiting to see them would form a receiving line. And they would just come by and shake hands, and ask them for their votes, and thank them for their support. Now, this is a state where we don't see a whole lot of that, but that's how he was spending his day today.
CORNISH: Now Florida, of course, is much a diverse state than those that have voted so far. So give me a sense of the issues that have been big in Florida. Ari?
SHAPIRO: Well, it is diverse. But one issue that goes across that diversity is the housing crisis. Romney often mentioned that one in four foreclosed homes in the U.S. are here in the state of Florida. And from the time he landed in the state he had a roundtable with people who had suffered from the housing crisis. He gave a speech in front of a foreclosed home.
This morning, I spoke with the Romney campaign's Florida co-chair, Tom Lee, who said to me this is something a candidate in this state has to talk about. Listen to what he said.
TOM LEE: It's at the epicenter of the problems we're facing in our economy here. If we don't get housing turned around, we're not going to get America turned around. And if a candidate's not talking about those issues right now, they're missing what's on the minds of people here in the state of Florida and around the country.
SHAPIRO: Now, what he didn't mention is that the housing issue also provided a perfect vehicle for Romney to keep attacking Newt Gingrich for work that Gingrich did for the housing giants Freddie Mac. He often repeated this line that Gingrich took $1.6 million for what Romney called influence peddling, Gingrich called consulting. One way or the other, it was a very convenient line of attack that played right into a really key issue for Florida voters.
CORNISH: And attack seems to be the operative word here, right Don? I mean, issues are one thing, but the tone in Florida really stood out.
GONYEA: And when I talked to voters today in Celebration and elsewhere, the thing every single one of them would bring up – and they would often bring it up without me broaching the subject – is how relentlessly negative the campaign has been here in Florida. There's a study out today that says 92 percent of the ads that aired in Florida during this primary campaign were negative. And anybody who's been here watching the TV and watching these candidates said that comes as no surprise, as big as that number is.
But listen, I was outside the polling place in Celebration just before the Gingrich bus rolled up, and I talked to this voter. Her name is Drusilla Amerie(ph). She is an IT specialist. She voted for Ron Paul. She says she'll vote for the GOP nominee no matter what. But listen to her take on the state of the campaign.
DRUSILLA AMERIE: I'm just not really happy about that kind of, you know, ad campaign. I just thought that was just was too destructive and they're just beating each other up and completely defeating the purpose. I don't like that kind of politics. I mean, why can't they just say, this is what I really want to do for America, instead of, this is what the other guy's doing.
GONYEA: And here's what some of the people I talked to worried about. It's not that this, you know, very, very bitter and brutal back-and-forth is going to give ammunition to the Democrats and to the Obama campaign come the fall. They're worried that it will demoralize Republican voters, who have been so enthusiastic about this election this year.
CORNISH: And guys, in the time we have left, I want to get a little bit of a preview of what's next for these candidates after Florida. Ari, what are you hearing from the Romney campaign?
SHAPIRO: Well immediately tomorrow he stops in Minnesota on the way to Nevada, which is the next state to vote on Saturday, a state where Romney has always done very well, partly because of the large Mormon population. Nevada leads the country in home foreclosures per capita, so housing is probably going to continue to be a huge issue there. A senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, yesterday told me this candidate is not going to go on cruise control. You're going to see him keep attacking President Obama and keep attacking his Republican rivals as long as they stay in the race.
CORNISH: And Don, what's next for Newt Gingrich?
GONYEA: He will be working his way toward Nevada as well, hoping to do well in a place that is seen as Romney country. Mitt Romney has done well there in the past and has worked it very hard. But here's the other thing: Newt Gingrich made the point again to reporters this morning that today is the fourth primary. He's got one win under his belt. He hopes to do better than expected here today. And he said guess what. We have six months to go. Now, we'll see how things play out in the weeks ahead, but as of today, Newt Gingrich is saying that he is in this until the convention.
CORNISH: NPR's Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea, thank you both for talking with us.
GONYEA: Thank you, Audie.
SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Audie.
CORNISH: That was NPR's Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea with the Republican presidential candidates in Florida; Ari Shapiro with the Romney campaign and Gonyea with the Gingrich campaign.
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