Florida GOP voters 'still trying to shop around'

George Bennett

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Palm Beach County Tea Party member Patti Uhlenhake says she'd vote for Mitt Romney over President Obama. But she doesn't sound especially fired up about it.

''I do have questions about Mitt Romney," Jupiter resident Uhlenhake said last week before a meeting with about 80 other tea party activists. "He is not a conservative."

Fellow tea partyer Fred Crowe prefers Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. He described himself as "a real conservative," but said "I don't really know" if Romney is.

Romney is consistently at or near the top of GOP polls in Florida and nationally. With his campaign war chest, establishment backing and a string of solid debate performances, the former Massachusetts governor is viewed by the political cognoscenti as ideally positioned to win the Republican presidential nomination.

On Intrade.com, where people bet real money on political outcomes, the market late Friday gave Romney a 68.5 percent chance of becoming his party's nominee. And the latest McClatchy-Marist nationwide poll released Friday showed Romney retaking the lead.

But for all the trappings of inevitability, Romney has not closed the deal with many in the party's conservative base.

Romney's authorship of a Massachusetts health care plan that requires individuals to buy insurance is routinely blasted by conservatives and compared to the federal health care law that Republicans loathe. His shifts in tone and substance since the 1990s on abortion, gay rights and gun control are viewed with suspicion by many on the right.

Failure to connect

One Republican candidate after another has tried to fill the role of conservative alternative to Romney. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry faltered. Cain has lost some momentum this month as he has repeatedly denied sexual harassment accusations. A recent rise in Gingrich's poll numbers could make him the next Romney foil.

''It's very clear that a majority of Republicans do not want Mitt Romney, who at this point has universal name ID but can't seem to break 25 percent," said veteran Republican consultant Roger Stone, who isn't aligned with any candidate but has consistently criticized Romney.

''I suspect Newt Gingrich is next. The not-Mitt Romney vote will settle somewhere. It's not about them. It's about Mitt Romney," Stone said.

Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said Republican voters are merely sifting through a crowded field.

''Gov. Romney is running on a fiscally conservative message that appeals to traditional Republicans, members of the tea party and even Democrats who are fed up with President Obama's failed leadership," Williams said. "Making a decision on who to select as our nominee is a very important decision and people like to take their time."

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., one of Romney's Florida campaign chairmen, said Romney's conservative credentials are genuine and Republicans will eventually see him as the strongest challenger to Obama.

''Conservatives are trying to shop around for somebody that is more conservative than they perceive Mitt to be," Rooney said. "They're going on dates with a lot of other people.

''The reason that I got on board with Mitt: I think that when our nominee is standing on a stage with Obama, he is the one that can beat him, whether it's in a debate or talking about the economy."

A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters Oct. 31-Nov. 7 underscored Rooney's argument while also highlighting Romney's failure to connect with many GOP voters.

The poll showed Romney running stronger against Obama than any of the other Republican candidates. Romney got 45 percent to Obama's 42 percent -- essentially a tie considering the poll's 2.9 percent margin of error. Obama led the other Republican candidates by between 3 and 6 points.

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