Romney makes detour to Florida to garner votes

The campaign is in full tilt in South Carolina, but Mitt Romney took a detour Thursday in his effort to wrap up the nomination by the end of this month.

Romney faced a cheering crowd here — including some passionate supporters, who unlike their peers in earlier primary states said they were not s imply lukewarm about the front-runner.

A Romney aide said his appearance at the convention center in Florida showed “the strength of our organization.” But it was also evidence of his strategy to target absentee-ballot voters, who are already voting in Florida ahead of the Jan. 31 contest there.

Romney has held multiple “tele-town halls” aimed at early Florida voters, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. The former Massachusetts governor is also running Spanish-language ads in Florida, where roughly 22 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Romney spoke for about 15 minutes at his West Palm Beach rally today without mentioning his GOP rivals. Addressing a crowd of more than 300 people, he attacked Barack Obama, saying the president has mishandled everything from the economy and the budget to relations with Israel and the Iran nuclear program.

Many attendees expressed strong support for Romney, saying they trusted the long-time venture capitalist to restore the economy.

“Many Cuban people are going to vote for Romney, believe me,” said Rosa Pestana, a 73-year-old Cuban immigrant who moved to Florida in 1971. “He’s the candidate Obama will be more afraid of.”

Pestana, who attended the rally with fellow Cuban immigrant Elaine Fandino, 71, said she expects Romney to garner less support from young Cuban Americans, but she noted that her own daughter is on the candidate’s side.

Others just seemed more resigned that he would continue his steady domination of the 2012 Republican field.

Diane Holland, 55, is an African American and registered Republican who works two jobs — one full-time and one part-time — as a pharmacy technician to make ends meet. She said she’s hoping a GOP candidate can improve the economy.

“He’s just got a few issues he needs to address for me,” Holland said. “I’m waiting to see who’s left.”

Holland said her concerns about Romney include his former Bay State policies and the fact that none of his children have served in the military. But she said the Republican front-runner would make a better executive than Obama.

“Personally, I think he’s just arrogant,” Holland said of the president. “The agenda he has is just like ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ ”

Former Florida congressman Clay Shaw, who played a major role in reforming welfare during the 1990s, attended the Romney rally today, telling The Post he supports the candidate for the GOP nomination. “We need someone who knows what a balance sheet looks like, he knows how to count, and he knows how to make some hard decisions about scaling down the size of the federal government,” he said.

Shaw also criticized GOP hopeful and former Hourse speaker Newt Gingrich for his recent rhetoric attacking Romney’s record with the investment firm Bain Capital.

“I’m a little disgusted with Newt and the approach he’s taking at this time,” he said. “It’s like we’re trying to eat our young. There’s a greater cause than oneself, and I’m not seeing that right now with some of the things that are out there.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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