- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Florida primary vote had obvious good news for Mitt Romney - he won. But a closer look at the parts of the state in which he sparkled vs. the areas where for him the sun didn’t shine so bright suggests trouble for the former governor in a matchup with President Obama.

The man Newt Gingrich calls the “Massachusetts moderate” won in many of the same parts of Florida that Mr. Obama captured in November 2008. Mr. Romney didn’t do so hot, though, in the Florida counties considered “must-wins” for a Republican in a general election.

“The combined vote - Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul’s - against Romney adds up to more than 50 percent in what was for Florida a low-turnout election,” said Florida resident Faith Whittlesey, who under President Reagan was White House outreach director and then ambassador to Switzerland.

“In order to win the general election, Romney needs to win a majority of what used to be called ‘Reagan Democrats’ - lower-income Catholics and evangelicals - who for economic reasons would otherwise vote Democratic. The statistics out of Florida don’t show Romney as likely to be able to do that.”

She noted that in counties in the Florida Panhandle, as well as in some small central counties, Mr. Gingrich stomped the former Massachusetts governor by 20 or more percentage points. Mr. Gingrich won 47.7 percent to 30.4 percent in Levy County, 46.2 to 32 in Putnam, 45.8 to 24.9 in Suwannee, and 48.9 to 24 in Jackson.

In the more populous counties around Tampa, Orlando and Miami, Mr. Romney smothered Mr. Gingrich. But Mr. Obama won those same more-affluent counties in 2008 - and prying them away from the incumbent will be tough for the GOP nominee this fall.

In the 2008 general election, most of Florida was painted red, but Mr. Obama took the state’s 27 electoral college votes because he won the most populous and affluent counties: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

“In every rural county and in central Florida, Romney did poorly, and he did surprisingly well in the I-4 corridor where he lost last time,” Florida native and Redeem the Vote President Randy Brinson said. “The message is that the majority of the votes came from the most affluent areas of Florida, not the Panhandle or the central areas.

“These are the areas Republicans have to win,” noted Mr. Brinson, a gastroenterologist and GOP activist. “This is a primary and not the general election. My concern is that if Romney can’t relate to evangelicals, Wal-Mart shoppers, sportsmen or NASCAR fans, he cannot win in the fall.

“And if the election is about who can best beat Obama then, then that candidate had better be as comfortable in Panama City as in Naples or be as comfortable in a bass boat in Fernandina Beach and the Nassau Sound as in a yacht in Biscayne Bay.”

Some political observers look at the same Florida results and draw more optimistic conclusions for Mr. Romney.

American Conservative Union Chairman Al R. Cardenas, the former chairman of the Florida GOP, agrees that the “Panhandle is like Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, and therefore a tough hill for someone like Mr. Romney to climb. It seems like Newt would win those areas in the foreseeable future unless it becomes apparent that he could not possibly win against Obama.”

But Southwest Florida is similar to the American Midwest and Southeast Florida is similar to the U.S. Northeast, he said. And since Mr. Romney won those Florida regions, Mr. Cardenas thinks Tuesday’s Florida results “are the best indication that Mitt has this battle in hand.”

Florida’s primary results offer more than a geography lesson for the two top GOP presidential nomination rivals.

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