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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 01/23/2012

Florida primary: Gettin’ swampy [updated]

Just came from the Mitt presser next to the Hillsborough River, with the onion domes of the U-Tampa in the background. Mitt wore jeans. He wears jeans a lot. Message: I am the common man. Anyway, Mitt called Newt “highly erratic” and warned that Newt is a time bomb, an “October Surprise” waiting to happen. He called on Newt to release all his documents regarding his work for Freddie Mac. Romney went so far as to say that Newt may have engaged in “potentially wrongful activity of some kind.” I asked him directly: Does he mean by that that Gingrich in his lobbying may be guilty of some kind of crime? Romney said no, but that there are regulations about lobbying (I didn’t quite grasp what he was saying), and “if he’s been lobbying he ought to acknowledge that.”

Anyway, it’s getting feisty in Florida!

[3:40 p.m. update: Just saw Newt at a megachurch next to I-75. Newt said of Romney: “If you’ve been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate.” And: “It’s such baloney...It used to be pious baloney, now it’s just desperate baloney.” Said Romney should open a delicatessen.]

This place has a lot of memories for me, or at least would have a lot of memories if I could remember anything prior to about 15 minutes ago. This was one of my stomping grounds, because my Dad lived here for several decades, starting in the late 1960s. I used to take the Trailways bus from Hogtown. I’d write more about it but gosh, it’s so last-millennium. We move on. Faulkner was wrong, the past is past. And if it’s not, this is why we invented selective memory.

Here’s the story I wrote that’s in today’s paper, about the “boom burbs” north of Tampa. I can’t believe these places exist. I knew every inch of I-75, thanks to the bus rides, and trust me, people didn’t live in these places back in the day.

Newt coming into town soon. Expect drama.

Excerpt from my story:

It’s a crossroads moment in a wild political year, and on a street corner in the suburbs, Newt Gingrich supporters wave “Toot for Newt” signs. A few Ron Paul backers offer modest competition. Most remarkable is the intersection itself: impossibly vast, 10 lanes on a side, counting the turning lanes. Locals boast that it’s the largest traffic intersection in Florida.

So this is somewhere special. The surrounding area is known as Wesley Chapel, which is just up the road from New Tampa, which is so far from the old Tampa that the city’s skyscrapers when glimpsed from a freeway flyover are little nubs on the horizon.

The boom burbs are a signature of the Tampa area and of the politically critical Tampa-to­Orlando-to-Daytona Beach strip known as the I-4 Corridor. Florida’s solar-powered real estate industry went into a frenzy during the housing boom, carving cul-de-sacs in pastureland and creating from scratch huge bedroom communities pocked with cypress swamps and sinkholes.

“I moved to Florida 16 years ago. This street didn’t exist. It was a one-lane road,” said Tom Banks, one of the Gingrich folks waving the signs at the intersection outside the Shops at Wiregrass.

This is where presidencies can be won — or lost. The state has 29 electoral votes, as many as New York. It’s by far the largest of the swing states. It’s no accident that the Republican National Committee chose Tampa for its summer convention. On Monday, the men vying to be the party’s nominee will debate on a stage here ahead of the Jan. 31 primary.

The boom burbs pose a particular challenge for presidential candidates. The voters are often independent ticket-splitters, as transient ideologically as they are geographically.

The folks in the boom burbs also have a reputation among political operatives for being hard to reach. The rap on them is that they go home and vanish into their domestic lives. They don’t tend to vote in local elections. They’ll vote in a presidential race but aren’t likely to attend a rally or a town-hall meeting — not that there are many town halls around here.

“It’s a get-in-the-garage and shut-the-door type of community,” said Nolan Ryon, 25, as he strolled through an outdoor art festival at the mall. He’s a Republican but undecided.

“Everyone just wants privacy,” said Vicki Wise, walking with her husband, Jim. They don’t talk much with their neighbors, she said, and certainly don’t talk politics.

“They went to school somewhere else, they got married somewhere else, they raised their kids somewhere else, they spent most of their lives somewhere else. How to get new arrivals to feel a sense of participation in Florida is a challenge,” said former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham (D).

While running for governor, and later while in office, he tried to connect with voters by doing “workdays” in which he’d pick up trash or chop onions in a restaurant kitchen, or something to that effect. He remembers Lawton Chiles winning a U.S. Senate race in 1970 by walking all across the state. But times have changed. There were fewer than 3 million people in Florida in 1950. That’s about the same number who moved here between 2000 and 2010....

[FYI there are now about 19 million people in the state.]

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 01/23/2012

 
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