Republicans' 'head versus heart' battle moves to Florida

By Paul West

Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich participate in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Pool, Associated Press

» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the South Carolina primary.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With the presidential candidates bracing for another televised debate Monday night, a nomination fight that has suddenly swung Newt Gingrich's way is playing out along a ragged fault line inside the Republican Party.

Gingrich routed Mitt Romney in South Carolina by both channeling and stoking the emotions of angry, economically stressed conservatives, who rewarded him by turning out in record numbers for the first Southern primary. Romney, his campaign back on its heels, is trying to convince Republicans that his cooler establishment mien is the surer path to victory in November.

On Sunday, Romney sought to smooth over what he described as "a setback" by announcing that he would make his 2010 tax return public Tuesday, along with an estimate of his 2011 taxes. His refusal to do so last week led a raucous debate crowd to boo him as he stood onstage.

"It's a classic head versus heart battle," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

As Romney and Rick Santorum arrived in Florida Sunday, the question hanging over the Republican contest — and a GOP establishment increasingly concerned about Romney's ability to close the sale — is whether the dynamics that emerged in South Carolina are irreversible, which would greatly complicate efforts to coalesce behind a likely nominee and pivot into the fight against President Barack Obama.

Gingrich, scrambling to raise enough money to compete with Romney on Florida television ahead of the Jan. 31 vote, is counting on momentum and two debates this week to produce another come-from-behind victory in the year's first big-state primary.

The emotions that Gingrich successfully exploited in South Carolina are also raging across Florida, Republican strategists say, as high unemployment and home foreclosures have dampened the once unquenchable optimism of Sunshine State voters.

David Johnson, a 20-year campaign veteran with ties to former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, said the restive mood clearly favors Gingrich.

"It is the angriest Republican electorate that I've seen," said Johnson, an adviser to former candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. but who is now neutral in the contest. The same tinder that Gingrich ignited up the coast "is there to set fire to in Florida."

With just nine days for candidates to make their case, Romney holds the upper hand, at least for now, thanks to a lopsided money advantage and groundwork laid since his 2008 campaign. But, Johnson said, "it's going to be a lot harder for him" to connect with voters here on an emotional level.

"There's nothing new about Mitt to a lot of these folks," he said. "They know the Mitt story. The question is, are we going to go ahead and vote for Mitt, or are we still shopping?"

With his breakthrough South Carolina win, Gingrich, who likes to cloak himself in the guise of the professor he once was, articulated the gut-level frustration of voters whose alienation from Washington and resentment of East Coast elites in government and the media have hardened in difficult times.

Exit polls show that they are deeply worried about the economy of a country that, to them, has been living far beyond its means and drifting away from its traditional moorings regarding same-sex marriage and other social issues.

A challenge for the former House speaker, who has gained and lost the lead before, will be to avoid coming off as so angry himself that he self destructs.

Romney, by contrast, is under intense pressure to at least neutralize the turbulent emotions that Gingrich has been able to exploit and to convince voters that he is the best candidate to defeat Obama — an argument that national polling data support but that South Carolina voters decisively rejected.

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