Florida Republicans divided on Gingrich

Despite a surge in polls, the candidate has yet to secure the vote of the state's critical Hispanic population.

    Newt Gingrich steps out to greet hundreds of supporters at a rally in the Sunshine State [Roza Kazan/Al Jazeera]

    Coral Springs, FL - "Newt! Newt! Newt!" chanted a crowd several hundred strong at a lively rally held on Wednesday for the presidential candidate in Coral Springs, Florida.

    It was Gingrich's third day of crisscrossing the Sunshine State ahead of Florida's primary next Tuesday. His campaign seems to be pulling out all the stops in a hard push to win another contest in the race for the Republican nomination.

    And a new Quinnipiac University Poll shows that his victory here in Florida may be possible. It shows Gingrich winning 34 per cent of the vote, only two points behind the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a virtual statistical dead heat separated by numbers that are within the poll's margin of error.

    These are big gains for Gingrich, who was behind Romney as recently as last week by double digits.

    An 'effective politician'

    Many voters here say it is his experience, debating style and "closeness to the people" that are attracting them.

    Tim Stockdale, a 42-year old medical supplier from Weston, Florida, told Al Jazeera that Gingrich was "one of the most effective politicians we've seen in our lifetimes". He added that "Congress is generally pretty ineffective at getting things done and when he was in charge, things did get done."

    For a middle-aged couple from Fort Lauderdale, it is Gingrich's "passion" that seals the deal. "Romney is a good businessman, but we wish Romney had more passion and could get to the people more," they told Al Jazeera. "Newt is very articulate and he simplifies things for everybody, not just the elites, or businessmen and politicians."

    And a 57-year-old web designer, Sunny Eckhardt, thinks Gingrich is "the best" because he can "think on his feet".

    "He can win in a debate against Obama," she said. "And he will bring our country back. Obama has brought us down in the world. Newt will bring respect back to the United States from other countries."

    Not yet in the bag

    But a Florida win is not yet in the bag for Gingrich. For one, the former House Speaker seems to be getting little electoral love from at least one group: young voters.

    "Newt is a known pharmaceutical lobbyist", read a sign held by Taylor Robitaille, an 18-year-old high school student from Coral Springs. A supporter for another Republican candidate, Texas congressman Ron Paul, Robitaille, told Al Jazeera she came to the Gingrich event to show his supporters that he is "not really conservative".

    "He's the most liberal candidate on the ticket," Robitaille said. "These people don't even know his history of liberal voting, which I think is kind of ridiculous."

    Some Floridians came to the rally to voice their support for candidates other than Gingrich  [Roza Kazan]

    "His rhetoric doesn't match his words," her companion 24-year-old bartender and fellow Ron Paul supporter Mike Cotungo added. "He speaks like a conservative, but votes like a liberal".
    And when Al Jazeera asked a group of four students before the last Republican debate at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa what they thought about Gingrich, all four rolled their eyes and seemed to recoil in collective horror.

    "He's just an angry little man," said 25-year-old Duane Bannette, a broadcasting major. "He gives off this sense of arrogance, like he's the best person that ever lived; God's gift to mankind."

    "With him, I feel he's only focusing on why the other candidates are bad," joined in 22-year-old Jesse Ritter. "It's like going to a car lot and being told to buy a Ford just because a Chevy or a Dodge would be so bad for you".

    And according to Nathaniel Gula, a 21-year-old psychology major, there is a darker side to Gingrich as well. "He is totally racist. And I feel he would have no problem at giving subtle hints to pull in the people who are racist."

    Their verdict is that if Gingrich gets the Republican nomination, Obama will get the young vote. "The sanity vote would go to the Democrats and Obama would win," Banette concluded.

    A key demographic

    And there is at least one other group where support for Gingrich is not yet given: Florida's Hispanics. An important voting block, especially in South Florida, they make up a sizeable 11 per cent of registered Republican voters in the state and represent 22 per cent of its total population.

    These facts have not been lost on Gingrich's campaign, which is now aggressively courting Hispanic voters. On Wednesday, he gave a policy speech on Latin America at Florida International University in Miami, and a 20-minute interview to the major Spanish-language network Univison.

    On the one hand, the Latino vote cards seem to be stacking up in his favour. Many Hispanics point out that Gingrich offers the most "humane" approach in addressing illegal immigration, a huge issue in the United States where over 11 million people do not have proper documentation.

    Gingrich proposes legalisation and "non-deportation" to those who have lived in the US for more than 20 years that have, in his words, "been paying taxes, obeying the law and belong to a local church".

    His position has earned him an endorsement from the biggest organisation of Hispanic Republicans in the US, Somos Republicanos. In a statement last week, it said: "We believe Newt Gingrich knows the importance of the Latino community. While the other candidates seem oblivious to this fact, Newt Gingrich has been working hard for many years to include American Hispanics in the overall conversation for a better America."

    That support has been gaining ground at the grassroots level as well. Maria Lima, a 56-year-old housewife from Pam Brock, Florida, told Al Jazeera she got involved with Gingrich's National Hispanic Inclusion team because she wanted to get the word out to other Hispanics about Gingrich's' "real plan" to solve the problem of immigration.

    "He's the only candidate who's been there for the Hispanic community throughout," Lima said. "He has a clear voice for the Hispanics and will do great things for us, in the area of immigration, jobs and education."

    She also thinks his position on immigration is "clearly compassionate" and that he has "thousands of boots on the ground" to promote his message to Hispanics. "We go door-to-door, we call, we wave signs. And we hope we can deliver the Hispanic vote for Newt in Florida."
    Gingrich too has been working hard to distinguish himself from Romney on immigration, latching on Romney's newly-voiced concept of "self-deportation".

    During Monday's debate in Tampa, Romney responded to a question about how to get illegal immigrants to go home without rounding up and deporting them with, "Well, the answer is self-deportation… people would decide that they could do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work."

    But Gingrich has called that a "fantasy". Alluding to Romney's income, which was made public through his tax returns released for the first time on Tuesday, he said "you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatically $20m income for no work, to have some fantasy this far from reality." 

    Not all good news

    But it has not been all good news for Gingrich. On Wednesday, a new poll from Univision News/ABC News showed he is only getting 23 per cent among likely Latino voters in the Florida primary, compared to Romney's 49.  And a number of key Florida Republicans have decided to endorse Romney.

    Susan MacManus, professor of Public Administration and Political Science at USF, says the previous three nominating contests took place in states similar to each other: small, rural and conservative with mostly white Anglo-Protestant populations.

    But Florida, she says, is a lot more representative of the country at large, a "microcosm", with its big presence of the fastest growing demographic group (Hispanics), mostly urban and suburban population, and a more tolerant, religiously diverse population.

    "This is a different playing field," she says, pointing out that Florida is the only one of the four "big states" that is a swing state.

    While the other three almost always vote the same (Democrat in California and New York and Republican in Texas), the Sunshine State "likes to change its mind". As she put it: "the clock starts all over in Florida".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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