Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in West Palm… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )
Reporting from Ruskin, Fla. — A highly fluid and newly competitive Republican presidential contest is barreling into Florida for a big-state fight in which victory by anyone but Mitt Romney would require a shocking upheaval: the triumph of momentum and free media over money in a state where dollars drive campaigns.
In Romney's national strategy, Florida was always the firebreak, protection against a South Carolina stumble, and the place where he could put an early lock on the nomination, as John McCain did over Romney and the rest of the field four years ago.
But to the surprise of many Republicans, including officials of his campaign, Romney has effectively been running unopposed in Florida. Other early-voting states were flooded in advance with nonstop campaign ads, but Romney has had Florida's airwaves to himself. The simple reason: It costs about $2 million a week to advertise across the state's 10 major media markets. His cash-starved conservative rivals — Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — put everything they had into South Carolina, leaving nothing for Florida. The fourth remaining candidate, Ron Paul, has already signaled he will not run a full-fledged campaign here.
A CNN/Time poll last week showed Romney leading statewide by 24 percentage points.
"Romney has worked the state continuously, one way or another, for the last six years," said Mac Stipanovich, a GOP strategist in Tallahassee who is not affiliated with any candidate this year. "Gingrich lacks both the organization and the financial resources to capitalize on a win in South Carolina."
For the last three weeks, Romney's image-building TV ads, in English and Spanish, have gone unanswered. He's promoted himself as a conservative businessman and countered attacks from Republican opponents on his job-creation claims as a private-equity investor. Alongside those ads, a group of wealthy Romney supporters has stepped in with a tough anti-Gingrich campaign, clobbering the former House speaker with the same negative ads that hurt him badly in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney has reinforced the messages with an aggressive mail and automated phone effort. The calls have come from the candidate and from his son, Craig, who speaks Spanish to Latino voters, who will cast about 1 in 10 GOP ballots.
Though Santorum's continued presence could complicate matters, Gingrich is now the main rival standing in Romney's way, with national polls showing a tightening race. But Gingrich is at a competitive disadvantage in Florida, forced to rely largely on news media coverage to promote his candidacy. "He can out-spend us 2- or 3-to-1, and that's not enough," Gingrich said the other day, as his campaign began to surge. "He would have to get up to 6- or 8-to-1 to have an effect now."
But that sort of one-sided fight — in Romney's favor — is exactly what has been playing out.
That wasn't what Republican officials in Florida had in mind when they jumped the line and pushed their primary ahead of other early contests. In response, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina moved up too, shifting the candidates' time and money away from Florida.
The supreme confidence of the Romney organization — one advisor called his Florida firewall "impenetrable" — has been shaken in recent days by the former Massachusetts governor's repeated stumbles over his personal taxes.
"There's a lot of loin-girding going on right now," said a Romney campaign adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The back-and-forth over whether to release Romney's tax returns and the multimillionaire candidate's statement that he had paid only about 15% in federal income taxes were "not helpful" in Florida, with unemployment nearly 10% statewide and pockets of 14% joblessness in some Republican areas, the advisor said.
The mood swings of Florida voters have closely followed national opinion trends in recent months, determined to a degree never seen before by televised debates; two more are planned this week in Florida. As recently as last month, Gingrich led by 23 points in the state, and his campaign is counting on a big shift back in his favor.
Jose Mallea, who helped manage Marco Rubio's successful 2010 Senate campaign, is running the Gingrich effort. "Newt," he said, will have "a healthy earned-media strategy" — consultant-speak for news coverage — that will make a difference "once he starts traveling the state." His first campaign swing is set for Tuesday; Romney starts his on Sunday evening.
Gingrich's "super PAC," run by Rick Tyler, a former close aide, is also gearing up to respond with ads expected to begin airing early this week. For the first time, said Tyler, "it'll be a head-to-head fight" between Romney and Gingrich.
Santorum may have something to say about that. He drew 19% in the CNN/Time poll, to 18% for Gingrich, and his continued candidacy will benefit Romney by splitting the vote on the right.