Today is the day when we will find out if the Republican campaign will be a long, grinding, brutal slog to the convention or a slightly shorter, grinding, brutal slog to the convention.
I no longer trust the theory that, at any given point, the primary campaign will be “over.” Because that cannot be allowed. We need stories, narratives, conflicts, comebacks, betrayals. And give this to Newt Gingrich: He’s a gamer. Raise your hand if you think he’ll react to a Florida defeat (which seemed likely last I looked at the polls) by shriveling up and going home to McLean to think revolutionary thoughts and begrudge the inside-the-Beltway establishment.
Gamers don’t quit. Gingrich is a journalistic godsend. It was kind of thrilling to be in the room for his moon-colony speech last Wednesday. You’d rather hear Romney annotate “America the Beautiful”? A prolonged primary battle will make great copy for those of us who used to be in the business of selling newspapers and now are in the business of giving away what we do for free in the hope that miracle money will materialize in the ether.
Newt rails against the establishment, and Herman Cain and Sarah Palin lock arms with him. And there is surely much to be said these days about the failure of the establishment — the fact that we’ve got a perfect mess in Washington in which nothing can be accomplished other than the demonization of he opposition. But revolutions have frictional costs not easily anticipated, which is why sober observers understand that Gingrich is not really a conservative in the classic sense.
Beyond ideology, beyond wealth or looks or cut of jib, the trait of a person I admire most is the talent for something, the mastery of technique, the skill that comes from hard work and repetition and creativity. As a political battler, Newt is a talented man. Romney less so — he sometimes starts to tap dance. It’s Super Bowl week so let’s say that he sometimes is like a quarterback with happy feet. This is because he has too many coaches in his ear and doesn’t always go with his own instinct. But when he came out last Monday in Tampa and unveiled his Florida strategy — Nuke Newt — he seemed to have a new jolt of confidence, and it carried through in the two Florida debates.
It seems likely that Romney will be the nominee and won’t do anything catastrophic to undermine his own chances or make the election about him. So it’ll be an Obama referendum, and the president will have to make his case for four more years. It won’t be about Romney’s taxes — or moon colonies.
It’s the anti-New Hampshire. Up there, everyone seems to be in the state legislature and on a first-name basis with Mitt, Newt, Rick and Ron. Down here, you can ask someone about the campaign and the answer might be — this is an exact quote from a voter in Sarasota, identity withheld out of courtesy — “What campaign?”
Which is one reason Florida is so enticing to a presidential candidate. It’s up for grabs.
Florida is a land of opportunity, a microwaved megastate. This has been a place, historically, where great fortunes could be won and lost, where huge pink hotels rise suddenly on barrier islands and instant cities appear amid the palmettos. Hustlers have loved this place, as have smugglers and pirates, and presidential candidates can do very well here.
Swing states don’t get any bigger than this. The state’s 29 electoral votes could prove decisive in the November general election. But events in recent days, as Republican candidates have bounced around the state and bopped each other with attack ads, have demonstrated the challenges of campaigning in Florida.
It’s hard for candidates to break through to an electorate that’s not always engaged. The campaign becomes a battle of the broad brushstroke, of blunt words and TV sound bites. Politics here can be as shallow as the Everglades.
Mitt Romney is up in the latest polls, but Newt Gingrich seemed to be winning just a few days ago. As Tuesday’s Republican primary vote nears, the situation has been fluid. That will likely remain true in the runup to the general election, with Florida hanging like a juicy mango on everyone’s electoral map.
This is a state full of what political science professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida calls “casual voters.” Many people are immigrants from countries that don’t have clearly defined political parties, and they’re swing voters by nature. Many people are lightly engaged in the process, because they have other things on their minds. This past week, the temperatures across the state were in the 70s. Sailing weather. Tee time.
There are many Floridas, scrambled together. If you don’t like one, drive 30 miles and you’ll be in another. You can get cultural whiplash driving down roads that are ruler-straight, lacerating the swamp and scrub.
Half an hour from Sarasota, you’ll be in cowboy country. Here comes a character wandering up to the mini-market in Myakka City. He’s a little rough around the edges, with long hair in braids. It’s Tom Harmon, 61, an airboat operator at a state park. Who does he like in the presidential race?
“I don’t give a [hoot],” he says. “Who can you trust?”
Put him down as “independent.”
Everything and everyone here is on the move, including the ground. This is why, as you’re driving, you might see a billboard for a law firm with the Web site “Sinkhole.com.” Florida is geologically new, built on a limestone platform that was once the bottom of a shallow sea. The porous ground can swallow a car or the corner of a house. Hence the sinkhole lawyers.
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