Florida is a crucial test for the Republican candidates who want to run for the US presidency. After Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it is the fourth state to vote, and far bigger, with a population of 19 million. There is also more variety among the electorate here, with the Hispanic community and retirees carrying significant influence.
By dominating both debates in Florida, Mitt Romney moved further ahead of his main rival, Newt Gingrich. In this state, the price of property has dived by 45% since 2006. Romney reminded audiences of his adversary’s links with two government-sponsored mortgage companies, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Mitt Romney said: “Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them, to influence other people throughout Washington, encouraging them not to dismantle these two entities. That was an enormous mistake. I think instead we should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter.”
This was hitting Gingrich head on. The former speaker of the House of Representatives likes to present himself as an ‘outsider’, both anti-establishment and truly conservative, to appeal to Tea Party voters.
Newt Gingrich said: “We ran a moderate in 1996 and we lost. We ran a moderate in 2008 and we lost. Think the only way to defeat Barack Obama is to run a solid conservative, who can make the case for our values and our beliefs, our programs.”
The ‘solid conservative’ speech traditionally seduces the Spanish-speaking vote, notably the Cubans-once-removed. They represent nearly one third of the Florida electorate, of which 28% support Gingrich.
Gingrich supporter Laura Vianelo said: “We need someone like Gingrich who is strong and very committed. He is very intelligent and we believe he is the kind of guy who can cope with difficult situations, especially given the state of the world and the complexities of foreign affairs.”
For many Hispanic voters, however, the relationship with Havana is not the priority: it is righting the US economy. And this is where Romney has managed to gain more credibility, with 48% of Hispanic support.
Romney supporter John Jupiter said: “You know the economy is really bad, and job creation is key, and in my personal opinion, Governor Romney, I call him the turn-around guy, because anybody that started from basically nothing and gravitated up can turn around the country economically.”
Yet even with predictions in Romney’s favour, only registered Republicans can vote in the Florida primaries. His party base here is not certain, and some are worried about the effect all the infighting might have when the party goes up against Barack Obama for the presidency.