Although Mitt Romney is favored to win today’s Sunshine State showdown, national excitement is high as voters clamor to see whether Romney does indeed pick up Florida’s 50 delegates later tonight. The Associated Press is reporting that Romney booked the Tampa Convention Center for his “night celebration” while canceling a rally scheduled for this morning. Newt Gingrich was scheduled to make a pit stop in Orlando at the First Baptist Church of Windermere before jetting off to Lakeland, Plant City, Celebration, and back to Orlando for his own end-of-the-night festivities at the Rosen Centre Hotel. Neither Ron Paul nor Rick Santorum will be in Florida for tonight’s results. Paul has already been focusing on the Maine caucuses, while Santorum has been tending to his three-year old daughter, Bella, who was hospitalized over the weekend. The former Pennsylvania senator was scheduled to hold a 10 am rally at the Lone Tree Golf Club Lounge in Lone Tree, Colorado.
According to the A.P., Gingrich “seemed to acknowledge his momentum had been checked, at least for now” but there’s no doubt this race is far from over and nobody is dropping out – despite the continued badgering of Santorum by the media:
Santorum bristled Tuesday when asked about Gingrich seeming to suggest the Pennsylvania senator should quit the race because Gingrich was the conservative most likely to defeat Romney. “I don’t think people should be telling other folks to get out of the race and get out of the way,” Santorum told Fox News Channel. “You don’t ask someone to quit just because you think you’re the better candidate. I think I’m the better candidate.”
Despite the competitiveness of the race, the usually stiff-necked Romney was unable to hold back his jubilation last night:
During his final event on primary eve, at The Villages in central Florida, Romney broke into song, leading the crowd in a reverent rendition of “America the Beautiful,” instead of just reciting the lyrics as he typically does.
In a piece this morning, Adam C. Smith, of The Tampa Bay Times, noted that Romney is not the same candidate who competed in this primary against John McCain in 2008:
There’s 2008 Mitt Romney, who campaigned as the conservative alternative to John McCain and won big in conservative northeast Florida and southwest Florida. He lost the state by 5 percentage points after McCain overwhelmingly won more moderate southeast Florida and dominated the counties along the I-4 corridor that make up about half the electorate.
The Mitt Romney of 2012 largely eschews the social conservatism he stressed four years ago and instead focuses on his business acumen and ability to turn around the economy. Nobody calls the former Massachusetts governor the conservative alternative this year, and polls suggest he is poised to win Florida’s GOP primary but dramatically redraw his electoral map of four years ago.
If he succeeds and dominates areas of the state where he was weak in 2008, Romney will be well positioned to take Florida’s 29 electoral votes in November.
The Times was also on the scene in my native St. Petersburg, where “a handful of voters trickled into a precinct at St. Petersburg’s Coliseum, casting their votes. A majority said they voted for Romney.”
“Romney is the most moderate of the bunch and I believe he won’t embarrass us,” said Sherwood White, a 75-year-old financial planner. “People complain he doesn’t connect well with the average person, but none of them connect with the average person.” White said the said he felt Romney’s business background would be good for the economy. “I think Obama is brilliant but he’s on the wrong side of the fence,” he said. “We need a smaller government.”
At the same precinct, Pinellas County Sheriff’s General Counsel Beth Lastinger, 45, cast her vote with a shrug. “I voted for Newt Gingrich but I’m honestly not sure why,” she said. “I kind of like Ron Paul but neither he nor Santorum has a chance of winning.”
Marilyn Cisek, a 75-year-old retiree who voted at the National Guard Armory on 38th Avenue S in St. Petersburg, said she couldn’t decide who she favored until the last minute. She also chose Gingrich. “Gingrich is not a loveable teddy bear,” she said. “He’s a tough guy and he stands up to people and that’s why I like him.”
The last of the Florida polls will be closing tonight at 8 pm.