CNN Florida Insiders Survey: 'Romney stepping up his game'

Romney and Gingrich campaign in Florida
Romney and Gingrich campaign in Florida

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Story highlights

  • Most CNN Florida GOP insiders surveyed predict Mitt Romney will win state's primary
  • Newt Gingrich's temperament viewed as an obstacle among these insiders
  • More than half say they're somewhat or very concerned about tone of the GOP race
As the Republican presidential campaign heads toward a critical showdown in the Florida primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to have rebounded from his second-place finish in South Carolina and is poised to score a victory over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to a CNN survey of Sunshine State GOP political insiders.
When 47 Florida GOP political players were asked who they thought would win Tuesday's primary, four said that Gingrich would, while the other 43 predicted that Romney would prevail. These insiders included state legislators, campaign consultants, fundraisers, veterans of previous primary campaigns, tea party advocates and other party activists.
At the same time, the Florida insiders estimated that Romney's final tally -- while significant -- would be a bit less than some of polls before the primary indicated. Collectively, these insiders predicted that Romney would capture 40% of the vote, compared with just under a third for Gingrich. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were expected to battle it out for third place.
What percentage of the primary vote do you expect for:
Mitt Romney -- 40%
Newt Gingrich -- 32%
Rick Santorum -- 14%
Ron Paul -- 11%
Other -- 2%
Romney has had some advantages as he's fought to bounce back from his loss to Gingrich in South Carolina on January 21. Many in the Republican Party establishment have stepped up their criticism of the former House speaker. And Romney still has a hefty financial edge over the rest of the field and strong campaign organization in Florida, enabling his campaign to garner absentee votes that could account for up to one-quarter of all the ballots cast in the primary.
While he's been outspent, Gingrich has picked up some key backers recently -- former GOP White House hopeful Herman Cain and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who sought the Republican presidential nod in 2008.
But the performance of the two main contenders in the campaign's final critical week has been just as important as organization and endorsements. Romney has become more of a spirited aggressor, putting Gingrich on the defensive at times.
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"Two flat debate performances in Florida coupled with Romney stepping up his game (in the CNN debate) on Thursday night really took the shine off Newt's momentum," one Florida GOP insider said.
Gingrich's main hurdle in the state is the view -- fueled by Romney surrogates -- that he is too erratic for the Oval Office and too enamored with "grandiose" proposals.
What do you think has been the biggest obstacle for Gingrich in Florida?
He doesn't have the right temperament to be president -- 63%
His consulting for Freddie Mac and other interests -- 17%
His personal life -- 15%
Lacks resources, organization (volunteered) -- 2%
"Newt's a pretty angry dude," cracked one Florida insider, a Romney supporter. "I fear after he loses (in Florida) he may still continue to launch attacks against Romney from his moon colony."
Gingrich also labors under the impression -- which Romney directly charged in the Florida debates -- that he became an influence peddler in Washington in his post-congressional career. "I think the notion that he wasn't a 'lobbyist' is nonsense," said a Florida Republican who is neutral in the race. "As a lobbyist, I'm offended."
But it hasn't been a cakewalk for Romney in Florida either. He's still dogged by the view that he shifts his stands with the prevailing political winds.
What do you think has been the biggest obstacle for Romney in Florida?
Perception that he has changed his views on key issues -- 64%
His taxes -- 17%
His record in Massachusetts -- 15%
None of the above (volunteered) -- 2%
Gingrich's momentum from South Carolina (volunteered) -- 2%
"There is simply a core of folks on the Republican side -- many who identify with the tea party -- who just don't trust Mitt," one Florida GOP insider noted.
The Romney campaign's release last week of his recent tax returns also has helped deflect that issue but hasn't buried it. "I don't understand the fascination that people have with this, but it's there and it's real," a Florida insider said. "It's not like he has done anything wrong or even unethical. People feel as though he has not paid his fair share for some reason."
As the stakes in Florida have risen, so too has the campaign rhetoric intensified.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush likened the candidates' escalating attacks as a "circular firing squad."
Some of the Florida insiders expressed unease, too, but at the same time they seemed to take the cut and thrust of the campaign in stride.
How concerned are you about the recent tone of the GOP presidential race?
Very concerned -- 15%
Somewhat concerned -- 40%
Not very concerned -- 34%
Not at all concerned -- 11%
Still, some observers point out that a long, protracted and even nasty campaign is not all that unusual in modern American politics.
"Remember Hillary (Clinton) and (Barack) Obama trashing each other four years ago?" asked one Florida GOP insider. Another echoed that point, "Hillary and Obama duked it out until the first week in June."