GOP primary: Will Florida follow its anti-establishment trend?

— Florida Republicans have shown a fondness for anti-establishment candidates in recent elections.

And the establishment has taken note as Tuesday's Republican presidential primary approaches.

Sunshine State Republicans swooned for underdog Senate hopeful Marco Rubio in 2010 and chased the once-invincible Gov. Charlie Crist from the party. Then they elevated wealthy non-politician Rick Scott over establishment-backed GOP stalwart Bill McCollum in the governor's primary.

Florida has already scrambled the 2012 presidential race once, giving long shot Herman Cain a GOP straw poll victory last fall in Orlando while sending then-frontrunner Rick Perry into a tailspin from which he never recovered.

Now comes the volatile Sunshine State's biggest Republican showdown of the tea party era.

Tuesday's results could give establishment favorite Mitt Romney the inside track for the GOP nomination or throw more uncertainty onto a race that has seen three winners in three contests.

Given Florida's recent history, it's not surprising that Romney's main rival, Newt Gingrich, has barnstormed the state as an insurgent, battling the "old order" and "the Washington establishment sitting around in a frenzy, having coffee, lunch and cocktail hour talking about, 'How do we stop Gingrich?' "

Never mind that Gingrich is a former House speaker and Beltway consultant who shared a couch with Nancy Pelosi to decry global warming. Gingrich's Florida campaign chairman is McCollum, the former attorney general who was an establishment casualty in 2010.

As preposterous as his outsider credentials might seem, Gingrich has undeniably caused heartburn for the GOP establishment as he tries to assemble a coalition of tea party members, evangelical voters and conservatives who don't trust Romney's move to the right since his days as governor of Massachusetts.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has appealed to the same groups in a bid to become the conservative alternative to Romney.

Santorum has more conservative appeal than the Republican frontrunners on health care, perhaps the major animating issue for the tea party movement and the Republican base. He regularly points out that both Romney and Gingrich have supported an individual mandate to purchase health insurance. But with little money or name recognition, Santorum has lagged in the polls and spent some time outside Florida in the week before the primary.

The fourth remaining Republican candidate, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, hasn't campaigned in Florida this month except to appear at debates in Tampa and Jacksonville last week.

Who has the advantage?

So the campaign for Florida's 50 winner-take-all delegates has been dominated by Romney and Gingrich during the past week. Polls suggest Romney has pulled ahead after a pair of strong Florida debate performances.

Romney and Gingrich and allied political action committees have savaged each other in TV ads, with Romney gaining the advantage by buying more air time.

Romney's campaign has money, organization and high-powered endorsements. He has been running for the White House officially or unofficially since 2007.

While Romney hasn't played the anti-establishment card the way Gingrich has, he frequently contrasts his outside-the-Beltway biography to the congressional resumes of Gingrich and his other rivals.

"I've never lived in Washington, D.C., I'm not part of the culture of Washington, D.C. I've spent my life out of Washington, D.C. I've lived my life on Main Street and on other streets across this country. I want to use the experience I've had working in the real economy to go to Washington, D.C., and fix it," Romney said Thursday in Jacksonville.

That same day, Gingrich delivered an anti-establishment jeremiad in Mount Dora.

"Make no bones about it," Gingrich said. "This is a campaign for the very nature of the Republican Party and the very opportunity for a citizen conservatism to defeat the power of money and to prove that people matter more than Wall Street and that people matter more than all of the big companies that are pouring the cash in to run the ads that are false."

Gingrich's rhetoric, and his criticism of Romney's record at the private equity firm Bain Capital, have alarmed some Republicans who say they expect such attacks from the left but not in a GOP primary.

After Gingrich's Mount Dora eruption, the Romney camp called him "unhinged" and labeled the event "Occupy Mount Dora."

Taking aim at Gingrich

Since Gingrich overcame a Romney lead to win last week's South Carolina primary, the Romney campaign has stepped up its attacks on the former speaker and unleashed a tsunami of surrogates on the Sunshine State to blast Gingrich.

Former Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Bob Dole ripped Gingrich's record as House speaker in the 1990s. With Gingrich campaigning as an ideological heir to Ronald Reagan, the Romney camp enlisted Reagan-era Navy Sec. John Lehman and a pair of ambassadors to accuse Gingrich

of exaggerating his ties to the conservative icon.

Elite conservative opinion writers have also taken aim at Gingrich and his reputation as an undisciplined and erratic leader.

"All of a sudden, today, there are like four different articles by four different people that randomly show up," Gingrich complained during Thursday night's debate in Jacksonville.

Various pro-Romney members of Congress and Washington alumni have piled on Gingrich as well, and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Cape Coral, a co-chairman of Romney's Florida campaign, has shown up at several Gingrich events to offer instant rebuttals and counter-spin to reporters.

The Florida fury led Sarah Palin, who hasn't made an official endorsement, to take to Gingrich's defense.

"The Republican establishment which fought Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and which continues to fight the grassroots Tea Party movement today has adopted the tactics of the left in using the media and the politics of personal destruction to attack an opponent," Palin posted on Facebook.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Gingrich's claim of outsider status is "kind of silly. Anybody who runs for president is an insider."

But seeing big-name Republicans pound Gingrich on Romney's behalf, Sabato said, "I see his (Gingrich's) point. And actually the Republican establishment is confirming it on a daily basis."

The criticisms of Gingrich seem to have had an effect on some late-deciding voters.

Last Sunday, the day after Gingrich's South Carolina win, two quick polls showed him leading in Florida. That night in Ormond Beach, construction executive Jeff Beck showed up at a Romney rally wearing a "Reagan Was Right" T-shirt and describing himself as undecided.

"Newt's got a lot of momentum right now. He's saying all the right things," Beck said while waiting to hear Romney. But Beck said he had reservations about Gingrich's "loose cannon" history and attacks on Bain Capital.

Beck, who describes himself as conservative with a pragmatic streak, said he liked Romney's appeal to independent voters but was troubled by his Massachusetts health care law.

By the end of the week, Beck said he had cast an absentee ballot for Romney. While closer to Gingrich in ideology, Beck said he had concerns about Gingrich "from a leadership perspective."

As for Romney, Beck said, "I would hope he shores up some of the conservative concerns."

george_bennett@pbpost.com


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