How Primary Skirmish Toughens White House Bid

Candidates vying for the GOP nomination will face off at the ballot box on Tuesday during Florida's primary. Host Michel Martin looks at who has momentum heading into the Sunshine State, and what impact the Super PACS are having on the campaign. She talks with U.S. News and World Report Columnist Mary Kate Cary and journalism professor Cynthia Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, I think we all know that slavery was a regrettable part of American history, but you might not know that slavery was experienced farther north and by more people than you might have known. In a few minutes, we'll hear about new research from a recent recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant about how Native Americans were part of the slave trade. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to look ahead to tomorrow's Republican presidential primary in Florida.

The Sunshine State will likely help one candidate take the lead in the race after the first three contests were split by Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, respectively. Florida also offers the most sprawling and diverse electorate of any state so far in the nomination process. Here to talk about the strategies, what to expect, are two of our regular political contributors - Cynthia Tucker. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She's now a journalism professor at the University of Georgia.

Hi, Cynthia.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us once again, Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former presidential speechwriter and worked for President George H.W. Bush. Hi, Mary Kate. Welcome back to you.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So let me start with you Mary Kate. According to the latest NBC/Marist poll, Mitt Romney - former Massachusetts governor - has a commanding 15-point lead over Newt Gingrich's 42 percent to 27 percent among Florida voters. Newt Gingrich, of course, is the former speaker of the House. Now, if these figures hold, does Newt Gingrich - who is vowing to fight all the way to the convention - does he still have a path to the nomination if Mitt Romney wins as decisively as it appears he will?

CARY: Yeah. He still could have a path, as long as Sheldon Adelson, his loan backer, keeps writing big, big checks. I think it was a total of $10 million between him and his wife in South Carolina and Florida.

MARTIN: And why is that?

CARY: Because that will allow him to stay on the air and to hire people on the ground. The other way he can do it is between now and April 1st, every single primary or caucus is proportional. Florida's the exception. It's winner-take-all. And as a result of making that exception, their delegates got cut in half to 50. It would have been 100. So, between now and April 1st, there are something like 28 primaries and caucuses, all of which are proportional.

MARTIN: So before I turn to Cynthia, let me just ask you, Mary Kate: What's your take on why Newt Gingrich's surge seems to have evaporated in Florida. As I think most people probably know, Newt Gingrich had the momentum. He had a big double-digit victory in South Carolina, and that seems to have evaporated. So what's your take on why that is?

CARY: You know, it's funny. Two weeks ago when we were on, Michel, I think the last words I said were historic wins in Iowa, New Hampshire. Romney was heading into South Carolina with, like, a 30-point lead or something, and we'd have a nominee by the State of the Union. Boy, was I wrong, you know. So, as we know, Iowa got recounted for Santorum, and we ended up with three winners in three states, no nominee by State of the Union. And in that time, though, there were two debates where Newt Gingrich did not do well and Romney did.

Newt, when he is on top, tends to get undisciplined, and you saw stuff like calling for a 51st State of the Union on a moon colony that I think a lot of people had a - I wrote a blog on it Friday, a speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace moment on the right before the wedding took place, and you saw George Will and Emmett Terrell and Elliott Abrams all come out, Anne Coulter, Bob Dole...

MARTIN: All prominent columnists, authors, Bob Dole, of course, the former nominee-senator.

CARY: Right, yeah, Bob Dole and now John McCain were not conservative columnists, but...

MARTIN: But two former presidential nominees...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...nominees for the Republican Party, coming on with both feet, saying no, no, no.

CARY: Right. Right.

MARTIN: No. Mistake. Cynthia, what's your take on why the Newt Gingrich surge seems to have abated? You certainly have followed his career, Newt Gingrich's career closely.

TUCKER: For a long time, and I think Mary Kate nailed the most important point. Romney had a strategy of focusing entirely on President Obama. He wanted to make himself appear the inevitable nominee. He wasn't going to pay his rivals much attention. That changed after Newt Gingrich's decisive win in South Carolina. So, Romney decided - hired a new debate coach, became a much better debater and hammered Newt Gingrich in the last debate that we saw. But another important difference is that Sheldon Adelson notwithstanding, Mitt Romney has much more money from superPACs than Newt Gingrich does.

He has spent - outspent Newt Gingrich five-to-one in Florida. It's a big state, lots of media markets, and if you can - if you've got the money to spend, retail politics don't matter as much in Florida as they did in South Carolina. And so Mitt Romney has just run some ads attacking Newt in - outspent him five-to-one, and that has made a difference.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, you know what I'm interested in, is the fact that Newt Gingrich has picked up the endorsements of first one, now two former rivals, first Texas Governor Rick Perry, and then the one-time Republican frontrunner, Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza threw his support behind the former House speaker. Let me just play a short clip of what Herman Cain had to say at a campaign event over the weekend. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERMAN CAIN: Speaker Gingrich is running for president and gone through this sausage grinder. I know what this sausage grinder is all about. I know that he's going through this sausage grinder because he cares about the future of the United States of America.

MARTIN: Cynthia, first of all, why were people laughing when he talked about sausage grinder. And second of all, what impact do you think his endorsement will have?

TUCKER: Well, I can tell you why I was laughing, Michel. You know, first of all, I don't think Herman Cain's endorsement is going to have very much effect at all. But let me also say, I'm not sure - you know, Herman Cain would never say this, but I'm not sure this is the kind of endorsement that Newt Gingrich needed. It came from a man whose bubble was burst in the campaign after several accusations by women of inappropriate sexual conduct - either allegations of sexual harassment, or in one case, a charge that Herman Cain had had a longtime adulterous affair.

Well, given Newt Gingrich's own history with women, I'm not sure that he needed the kind of endorsement that reminded voters of Newt Gingrich's own conduct, which is one of his biggest weaknesses. If he is appealing to conservative Christian voters, they must give some pause to voting for a man who is on his third marriage, who clearly committed adultery with his second wife.

So, not only will this Herman Cain endorsement not do Newt any good. It might hurt him more than it helps him.

MARTIN: We're speaking with our regular contributors on politics, Cynthia Tucker - Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor of journalism at The University of Georgia - and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report. You know, Mary Kate, what's also interesting about Florida is it seems that a gender gap has emerged.

CARY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean, a lot of people - analysts were predicting in South Carolina where, you know, Christian evangelicals...

CARY: That the women wouldn't go for it. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that women would not go for Newt Gingrich. In fact...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...they did, but that advantage also seems to have disappeared, where it now...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...in fact, women are more likely to support Mitt Romney. And I don't want to forget the fact that, you know, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul are still, you know, in the race. Rick Santorum is taking a short break from the campaign because his youngest child is ill and he's taking a break...

CARY: I think he's doing better, actually.

MARTIN: ...but to be, you know, at her side. His daughter is one of - his oldest daughter is substituting for her, but why do you think that is, Mary Kate, that the gender gap that people were predicting has emerged?

CARY: Yeah. I think there was a bit of a lag, and I think part of the difference, too, is Florida's a little unique because there are so many transplanted Northerners down in Florida, and I think you won't see that quite so much on Super Tuesday. I think some of the vote amongst evangelicals and Tea Partiers might be a little different across the South than it is in Florida, just because there are so many New Yorkers and New Englanders down there for the winter.

MARTIN: And, Cynthia Tucker, finally, before we go, tomorrow's not only a primary day, but the reports are out showing who gave to who and to what superPACs. Those superPACs, I think both of you mentioned them earlier. Those are those political organizations that aren't allegedly affiliated with campaigns, but they can raise unlimited amounts of money to promote candidates. And then, of course, the pro-Romney superPACs contributed to heavily - spent heavily in Iowa. But then, of course, as Mary Kate mentioned and as you both mentioned, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson helped keep - is keeping Gingrich afloat.

So, Cynthia, what do you think - I'm asking you to predict, it's unfair - that we'll see in these reports tomorrow?

TUCKER: We're going to see a lot more money contributed by corporations and very rich people. Michel, superPACs are the story of this campaign season, and we're going to continue to see their influence in the general election. This is shaping up to be not only perhaps the most expensive GOP primary season, but perhaps the most expensive general election campaign, as well, because President Obama has his own - I say his own.

Technically, these superPACs are not aligned with a candidate, but of course, they line up to support one candidate or the other. And so what we reporters will be looking for is what individuals they can link to what candidates.

But it's a murkier business than I would like to see as a journalist. It's not nearly as straightforward as it should be. It is sometimes more difficult to track who's giving money to whom than it should be.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, we only have a couple seconds left. What's your take on the role of the superPACs?

CARY: This morning, Politico had, through Friday, in Florida only, combined spending between campaigns and superPACs, Romney spending 15 million, Gingrich three million - so a ton of money going into these states.

I think what it's done is it has removed control of the message from the campaigns somewhat. The campaigns seem to be spending their money on positive messages, superPACs on negative. I think there's going to be a lot of implications for House and Senate races across the country as we move forward. And the best thing I've seen is Judge Scalia was asked about this, and he said, hey, if you don't like it, turn off your TV.

And that's good news for NPR listeners. There's no superPAC advertising on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes, that's right. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's a former presidential speechwriter. She worked for President George H.W. Bush. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

With us from the University of Georgia, member station WUJA in Athens, Georgia, Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize-winner and journalism professor at the University of Georgia.

Ladies, thank you.

CARY: Great to be here.

TUCKER: Thanks, Michel. Good to be here.

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