Florida votes, with a deep breath and a sense of relief


FT. MYERS, Florida — As Floridians go to the polls today, it will most likely be with an overwhelming sense of relief: at long last the bruising battle between the two frontrunners will be at an end.

For weeks Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have slugged it out, bringing a tsunami of negative ads to the airwaves, tossing around accusations and ridicule in their drive to grab the top spot and, possibly, clinch the nomination in the most significant state to vote so far.

Polls show Romney with a hefty lead, but the upset in South Carolina on Jan. 21, when Gingrich swept to a surprise victory, has everyone on edge.

Gingrich is the undisputed choice of the ultra-right conservatives, who admire his reputation as “an insurgent bomb-thrower” for the Republican Party. Romney’s more conciliatory stance has them riled, and it shows.

Conservative talk show mavens Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck devoted the bulk of their programming on Monday to attacking Romney and building up Gingrich.

Florida primary: Anger in the Sunshine State

In the bleak Florida inland, along the road known as “Alligator Alley,” it is one of the few stations that can be received clearly.

Gingrich made five stops across the state on the final campaign day, flying the length and breadth of Florida to woo voters.

In Ft. Myers, on Florida’s west coast, his committed campaign team pulled out all the stops. They even enlisted the Almighty himself in their cause.

“Americans and Republicans are united to save this country,” intoned Catherine McMichaels, elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Ft. Myers. “We need to ask for the hand of Divine Providence to help us.We ask a special blessing on our candidate, Newt.”

The journalist next to me smiled.

“Is she saying he’s going to need a miracle?” he asked.

The crowd of about 500 welcomed Gingrich and his team with open arms; he brought with him a surprise guest: Herman Cain, who endorsed Gingrich at a Republican fundraiser in West Palm Beach on Saturday night.

Cain is enormously popular in this working-class enclave, and his appearance brought joyful shouts and cheers.

“A journalist asked me the strangest question,” he said. “He asked ‘why didn’t you endorse Newt earlier?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘because I was running against him, that’s why!’”

Gingrich himself sounded his usual notes: he was the true conservative, Romney was a Massachusetts liberal, and President Barack Obama was destroying the country.

To bolster his common channeling of Ronald Reagan, he brought along the former president’s son, talk show host Michael Reagan, who called Gingrich a “true Reagan Republican.”

The crowd was sparser than the one Gingrich had addressed in nearby Naples last week; more than 6,000 turned out for that event.

But this group was enthusiastic, if a bit bitter about the brutal tactics employed against their chosen candidate. They had no reservations about tearing down the other side, however.

“Gingrich is the only one with the cojones to stand up to the news media,” said Dorian Dagich, a retired policeman from Ohio. “Let’s forget this crap about demeaning everybody. They are all afraid of Newt Gingrich. They knock him for every little thing, but never praise him for what he’s done. He balanced the budget.

Florida primary: Mitt Romney has edge among Florida's Republican Hispanic voters

He turned Bill Clinton around. This Fidel Obama is killing our country.”

He paused pugnaciously. “That’s what I call him. I can still say whatever I want. Another four years of this, though, and maybe I won’t be able to.”

Cheryl Tracy, a transplant from Colorado, was similarly enthralled.

“This is the neatest thing I have done since I saw Reagan,” gushed the 65-year-old.

She was angry at the scorn heaped on her favorite politician by the Romney campaign after Gingrich suggested colonizing the moon in the debate Thursday night.

“Doesn’t Romney know that there are large aerospace companies all over America?” she asked. “Doesn’t he care if the Chinese get there first? I think as a businessman, and as a presidential candidate, it is his duty to know!”

Gingrich’s personal history did not bother her in the least.

“I’ve been married three times myself,” she said. The real reason for the concerted effort to topple Gingrich, Tracy maintained, was his shake-up of the Congress.

“They do nothing ad they want to do nothing,” she said. “Newt won’t stand for that. They fear him and that’s why they have attacked him. It is the embedded elitists of the RNC (Republican National Committee) who are doing this.”

Romney also toured the state in the last days before the poll, speaking to overflow crowds in several locations.

In Pompano Beach Sunday night, he delivered his usual stump speech to an overflow crowd at the Emma Lou Olson Civic Center. About 800 people packed into an auditorium set up for half that number to see the candidate and his wife, Anne.

Romney was sharper in his criticism of his chief opponent than has been his custom, telling Gingrich to “look in the mirror” if he wants to find someone to blame for what Romney says is his failing campaign.

This crowd was a bit more cerebral than those at the Gingrich rally.

A tall, distinguished couple gave a long dissection of why Romney would be good for the country. They asked that their names not be used; he is a retired mathematician, she a retired physical therapist, both of whom came to this country from their native Norway more than 30 years ago, and are now citizens.

When asked about Romney’s oft-repeated excoriation of the “European social welfare state,” they nodded in agreement.

Mitt Romney's tax returns reveal he pays 15 percent, less than average American

“In Norway, they taxed everything that worked and subsidized everything that didn’t,” said the husband. “Eventually, everything collapses.”

One man who won’t be voting for Romney today is Zachary Dulaney, a volunteer at the nautical flea market in Pompano Beach. The market, which he described as “the biggest event of the year” in Pompano, was taking place right behind the civic center, and Romney’s team had closed the parking lots the vendors and customers normally use.

“We saw only 25 percent of the traffic we usually do,” he fumed. “This cost these guys about $17,000. And they say Romney is for small business?”

Florida has more than 4 million registered Republicans; as of Monday, more than 600,000 had already voted by absentee ballot.

While whoever wins today will have a leg up on the nomination, it is not likely that the campaign will end any time soon. Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul are expected to stay in until the convention in August; former Pennsylvania Governor Rick Santorum, who is far behind in the polls and who campaigned only lightly in the state, may be weighing his options once the results are in.

“At least we won’t have to listen to these ads from now until August,” grumbled one Florida resident Monday night. “That’s the best thing about this election.”

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