The Villages, Florida
Mitt Romney and Ron Paul may be running in the same race, but they’re different animals. While Romney was holding rallies across Florida in the run up to Tuesday’s primary, Paul’s camp was busy in less conspicuous places such as Maine and Nevada, where voters will head to the polls on Feb. 4, looking to strategically pick up delegates in his slow, steady effort to win a prominent role at the August convention. Their divergent strategies underscore the distance between their campaigns in style, aim and support.
The two candidates aren’t competing against each other in Florida, where expensive media markets and winner-takes-all delegate rules have led Paul to cede the state. But they will soon be going after the same voters in Nevada, where Paul is counting on the state’s libertarian streak to steal some of Romney’s powerful Mormon bloc, while Romney tries to woo Tea Partyers with his budget-cutting message. “We feel good about Nevada,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom says. “But, again, we’re not taking anything for granted. It’s a state where Ron Paul finished a strong second four years ago. We view him as a serious competitor in Nevada.” And as competitors, they couldn’t be more different.
Paul is a political preacher trying to build a flock and spread his libertarian gospel. Romney, meanwhile, is running a classic campaign, using an anti-incumbent message with hopes of sewing up the nomination as early as possible by uniting Republican factions. While Paul will talk at length about obscure points of Austrian economics and take questions, Romney is on message and guarded. In recent days, Romney’s been hosting big, bannered rallies across Florida. At an evening event in The Villages retirement community on Monday, a billboard-sized sign had been hung on a building behind his stage, where thousands had gathered starting early in the afternoon: “Florida is Romney Country,” it read.
Between events, Romney travels by chartered flight or in one of his rock band-sized buses with his logo on the side and Twitter handle advertised on the back. A press squad travels in another bus and takes a seat in the back of the planes, offered in-flight menus with Romney’s name across the top. Following Paul in earlier states, reporters had to chase his black SUV in rental cars; if one saw a vehicle bearing Paul’s name, it had likely been spray-painted on by a fanatical supporter. His events were humble: small, country chapels to Mitt Romney’s megachurches.
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Their respective warm-up acts also illustrate their differences. Before the Texas congressman’s speeches, he is often presented by a state legislator. In Florida, Romney has had members of Congress doing his introductions and even acting as surrogates at other opponents’ events. At a rally on Sunday, a former congressman introduced a current congressman, who introduced the chairwoman of his committee in the U.S. House, who then introduced Romney. The candidate usually arrives on stage to his theme song, Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” and leaves to the same tune less than 15 minutes later. No questions, thank you.
The biggest divide, however, may be their supporters. Paul’s people, who dutifully showed up to hold signs bearing his name at some of Romney’s Florida events, are dedicated to Paul’s policies. Asking them the reasons for their support can easily lead to a 10-minute conversation about the advantages of non-interventionism or the gold standard. Many can live without their man winning the nomination; it’s about the libertarian cause. A Paul supporter at a Romney rally on Sunday said Paul would never win the whole shebang, but he was casting his ballot for him today anyway as “a symbol of protest against the GOP Establishment.”
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Many of the Floridians rallying to Romney are often attracted to him precisely because he seems electable; their support is strategic, not symbolic. More often than not, his supporters couldn’t (or wouldn’t) name a particular policy they like; more important to them was the fact that the former governor is a successful businessman who carries himself well and has a relatively unimpeachable personal background. “I like the way he handles himself,” said one rally attendee on Monday morning, when asked what he liked most about the candidate. “He’s a Republican,” said another. “He seems more professional,” said a third. “He’s clean and pleasant,” a woman said at a rally in the afternoon. As former Florida state senator Connie Mack has been putting it in his introductions for Romney, “He looks like a President.”