In Florida, Romney vs. Gingrich is a fight for GOP’s direction

As Brenda Mulberry stepped into the natural-food grocery in Cocoa Beach this week, she paused to tick off elements of her shopping list for a candidate in Tuesday’s Florida primary. Electability was at the top, and for that reason she’s backing Mitt Romney.

Mulberry, 53, owns a small business manufacturing souvenir T-shirts, so she appreciates Romney’s moneymaking skills and thinks critics should stop attacking him simply because he’s rich. As for Newt Gingrich, Mulberry is certain the thrice-married former House speaker would lose in November.

She can hear President Obama now: “Well, I’ve been married to Michelle for all this time.... If he can’t run his own personal life, then how’s he going to run a country?”

But Jeff Cloud, 59, who makes a living doing yardwork in Florida’s rural interior, questions whether Romney has the toughness it takes to sit in the Oval Office. For that reason, he leans toward Gingrich.

“He’s fought a lot of battles,” Cloud said, sitting at a picnic table outside the public library in Brooksville. “With Romney, I just don’t know if his background is strong enough to be what we need as a leader.”


The fight for the Republican presidential nomination, now centered in Florida, has become more than just a contest between Romney and Gingrich. It has become a battle over the direction of the party, between different visions of whom it serves — Wall Street or Main Street? — and whom it should represent.

It is an old fight, waged intermittently for more than 50 years, with different candidates — Eisenhower versus Taft, Rockefeller versus Goldwater, Dole versus Buchanan — in the roles of establishment favorite and conservative alternative. (Spoiler alert: The establishment pick almost always wins the nomination.) It is a fight, as well, between classes and cultures, evidenced by the support won this year by each of the main contenders in the three contests so far.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has drawn his greatest backing from more-affluent voters, the better-educated and those less enamored of the tea party movement. Gingrich has run best among those who are less comfortably off, voters with greater economic anxiety and those angriest at Washington and its institutions. (Rebellious outsider may be an improbable role for someone who has spent decades inside the Beltway and profited handsomely from his knowledge. But as University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus put it, “Newt’s just their megaphone.”)

The social and economic divide is clear here in Florida, where Tuesday’s contest will probably come down to Republicans living in a broad swath that cuts roughly across the center of the state, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

Hernando County is on the western side of the I-4 corridor, Florida’s main east-west route, and stretches from the gulf to the Withlacoochee and Little Withlacoochee rivers. The county was among the fastest-growing in the state, its economy heavily dependent on construction, but now it has one of the highest unemployment rates: 12.7%, compared with 9.9% statewide and 8.5% nationally.

Brooksville, the county seat with a population of around 8,000, is located roughly in the middle. Residents are poorer and less educated than most Floridians, and their homes are worth far less than the state’s average.

With the housing industry in such poor shape, economic prospects are grim and the political conversation is freighted with the language of suspicion and resentment.

People question how Romney, who is worth hundreds of million of dollars, can possibly relate to the common person, and some openly express their discomfort with his Mormon faith. They like the fact that Gingrich is a fighter — something many believe the more patrician Romney is not — who could give Obama and others in Washington a fat punch in the nose. Former candidate Herman Cain, who also played to that sentiment, endorsed Gingrich on Saturday night.

“He’s exactly what he says he is and, watching him over the years, he does exactly what he says he’s going to do,” said John Nyhof, 67, a retired auto body repairman and truck driver.

“I think he’ll destroy Obama,” Nyhof said, relishing the thought.

On the other end of I-4, Cocoa Beach and the surrounding region soared with the ascendance of the space program, which gave the area its name, the Space Coast, and, more, its identity. Along with schools like Apollo Elementary and Astronaut High, there is Armstrong Drive, Grissom Parkway, John Glenn Boulevard and the indelible “countdown” area code: 321.

Brevard County, which takes in most of the Space Coast, lost an estimated 13,000 jobs with the end of the space shuttle program last summer, and while local leaders are working to turn the region into a hub of arts and eco-tourism, unemployment is 10.8%. Housing prices continue to tumble, people are walking away from their homes and the future seems as bleak as the shuttered storefronts along coastal Route 1.

Still, the average county resident is better off and better educated than most Floridians, and the sense of grievance among Republicans, while real, lacks the populist edge that has helped fuel Gingrich’s campaign.

There, Romney’s financial success is seen as a sign of intelligence and hard work, not greed or corporate ruthlessness. “If he’s done as well as he’s done in business, then I think there’s a lot he can do to turn around the economy,” said James Wittholt, 39, who commutes from Titusville to a structural design job in Orlando.

Gingrich visited the Space Coast on Wednesday and delivered an audacious promise: He vowed to colonize the moon by the end of his second term. The pledge drew an enthusiastic response at a rally of supporters, but in Thursday night’s debate, Romney called it pandering and financially untenable at a time the country is swimming in debt and looking for ways to cut spending.

Others along the Space Coast agreed.

“Oh, that’s crap,” snapped Richard Gilbert, 71, a NASA retiree. “Who wants to live on the moon?” he said, his eyes and an arm sweeping skyward. “I don’t want to live on the moon. You want to live on the moon? That’s a promise he can’t keep and we know that.”

Gilbert, who lives in Titusville, has already voted; he cast his ballot for Romney. “Mitt to me seems like he’s the most logical one,” he said. “He knows how capitalism works and knows how to get this country on track. At least, I hope so.”

Barabak reported from Cocoa Beach and Hoeffel from Brooksville.