Whither the Florida tea party vote?
That is the question. And we may not know the answer until Tuesday’s Sunshine State primary.
Three of the top GOP presidential contenders — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — made their pitches Sunday night in a conference call with nearly 6,000 Florida tea party activists.
During the call, organized by the national Tea Party Patriots group, each of the three White House hopefuls had about 10 minutes to field pre-screened questions from tea party activists and then make a brief closing statement. (A fourth candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, was unable to participate because of a previous engagement, Tea Party Patriots Co-Founder Jenny Beth Martin said.)
The three contenders made their cases for lower spending, arguing that the $1.047 trillion limit set by the August debt deal for fiscal 2013 is unacceptable. (That might come as news to the congressional GOP leaders who negotiated the deal.)
“I would go in and start by looking through how much could we save, how much could we cut immediately,” Gingrich, who was the first candidate to speak on the call, told the activists.
He argued that he would reduce spending on a number of federal agencies. And he used a fair share of his allotted time to take aim at Romney, who will be his main rival in Florida’s primary on Tuesday, calling the former governor “a Massachusetts liberal who was for abortion, for tax increases, for gun control.”
It would be “truly sad” if Florida sent Romney to the Republican National Convention with its delegates, Gingrich added.
Up next was Romney, who told callers that the federal spending level “has to be lowered by the end of my first fiscal year.”
He said he would limit non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels and would cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS and Amtrak, as well as achieve a balanced federal budget by his second term in office.
Romney mentioned his personal life — noting that he has “been married to Ann for 42 years” — and said he has been “true to the things I believe in.”
By contrast, he argued, under Gingrich’s speakership, “government grew faster than inflation all four years he was in office.”
“I’ve got a record of cutting government I don’t think anyone else can match in this race,” he said.
The final speaker was Santorum, who told callers that he was dialing in from the hospital room of his daughter Bella.
“I would begin cutting immediately,” he said when asked about the federal budget. He pledged to trim $5 trillion over five years — a sizable amount, given that Congress was able to agree this summer on cutting only about $2 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years.
Santorum said the federal government would “spend less money every year over four years” until he was able to limit federal spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product, down from the current 25 percent.
So whom will Florida’s tea party backers vote for, and what role will they play in Tuesday’s primary?
A look at recent shows indicates that they could play a significant role — although perhaps they will not be as great a factor as they were in Iowa and South Carolina.
An NBC News/Marist poll conducted on Wednesday and Thursday found that 48 percent of potential Florida GOP primary voters said they support or strongly support the tea party, while 43 percent do not support it and 9 percent are unsure.
But it’s nearly even with the 51 percent of New Hampshire voters who supported the tea party in the Granite State’s Jan. 10 GOP primary.
Notably, tea party supporters in each of the three states chose that state’s eventual winner: Santorum won tea party supporters on Jan. 3 in Iowa, with 29 percent; Romney won them in New Hampshire, with 41 percent; and Gingrich won them in South Carolina, with 45 percent.
Looking at recent Florida polls, it appears to be a tight race between Gingrich and Romney among tea party backers heading into Tuesday’s primary.
The NBC News/Marist poll showed Gingrich taking 36 percent among tea party supporters to Romney’s 34 percent. Santorum takes 22 percent while Paul takes 6 percent.
If Romney wins on Tuesday — as it looks as though he’s poised to do — and does not pick up the support of a plurality of tea party supporters, that would mean Florida would be the first primary state thus far in which the eventual winner has not won the greatest share among tea party supporters.
What would that mean for the greater GOP race — as well as for the tea party’s future? We’d like to know your thoughts; the comments section is open for business.