Florida primary pits tea party vs. cocktail party

Romney's crowds appear prosperous, while Gingrich's would fit in nicely at the dog track. | AP Photos
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Romney's crowds appear prosperous, while Gingrich's would fit in nicely at the dog track. | AP Photos

TAMPA, Fla. — As the Republican race moves to a state defined by the extremes in recession-era America — where the underwater and unemployed live just a few miles from the 1 percent — a sharp class divide is emerging between the two top contenders.

Mitt Romney’s crowds look like something out of the president’s suite at a University of Florida football game — prosperous, trim, Tattersall-clad, and supportive but not rowdy.

Newt Gingrich supporters, with their spray-painted signs, American flag tees, flip-flops and fanny packs, more closely resemble a group that would fit in nicely playing a few bucks at the dog track.

Exit poll data and unmistakable anecdotal evidence from their events reflects an unfolding campaign in which Romney does best with voters that are a lot like him — wealthy, well-educated and lukewarm about the populist tea party movement. Gingrich is appealing most to Republicans who earn under six figures, make up the core of the middle-class and are worried about their economic prospects and furious at the establishment.

It’s the Tea Party and the cocktail party.

Tampa attorney Paul Phillips illustrates the gap. He came to Romney’s Tuesday morning State of the Union pre-buttal dressed for a business meeting, sporting a blue pinstriped suit and a smart polka-dot tie.

“I’m an educated elitist,” Phillips said before Romney spoke in a warehouse that has closed during the economic recession. “I mean seriously, I don’t view the tea party with a very good light. Most of them quote the Constitution and don’t understand it. It’s pretty scary, actually.”

Phillips, who said he received an invitation from the Romney campaign to attend the event, said he’s supporting the former Massachusetts governor because his background is clear of the Gingrich scandals that the Romney campaign has sought to emphasize.

“They were the only two intellectual, credible people in the race. It was obvious that they would be the final two,” Phillips said. “However, given Newt’s past, I just don’t see him as someone I want in the presidency for four years.”

In contrast, Steve Bonnell, an HR manager from Lithia, Fla., said he came with a Gadsden flag and spray-painted “USA Hearts Newt” sign to the Tampa debate Monday because he was “trying to save America.”

“He’s able to articulate what the American people are thinking,” Bonnell explained about why he likes Gingrich.

And what’s that?

“We want our country back,” he said. “We want to abide by the Constitution. We’re nearly bankrupt in every sense of the word.”

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Republicans prefer to ignore class differences within their auto mechanic and hedge funder coalition, but the establishment vs. insurgency battle between Romney and Gingrich increasingly resembles the beer track-wine track epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Gingrich detected the element of the Republican electorate that would have trouble warming to Romney and has begun wooing them with notes out of the hymn book of fellow McLean populist, Pat Buchanan. The former speaker now regularly rails against political correctness and New York and Washington elites while noting that much of the “Massachusetts’ moderate’s” financial support comes from Wall Street. And then, of course, there is Gingrich’s on-again, off-again assault on Romney’s tenure as buyout specialist at Bain.

“You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and making $20 million for no work, to have some fantasy this far from reality,” Gingrich jabbed Wednesday, using Romney’s newly disclosed assets to mock him for saying illegal immigrants would self-deport.

The populist opening Gingrich sees is apparent in the results from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In the first three states, Romney finished, respectively, in a very narrow second, a decisive first and a distant second. But according to exit polls, he ran away with the country club vote in each.

Among the wealthiest voters, the former Massachusetts governor beat his nearest rival by 12 percent in Iowa, 34 percent in New Hampshire and 15 percent in South Carolina.

With voters who have post-graduate degrees, Romney also won in every state, besting his nearest opponent within the ranks of JDs, MDs and MBAs by two percent in Iowa, 16 percent in New Hampshire and two percent in South Carolina.

The question wasn’t asked in Iowa, but in New Hampshire and South Carolina Romney performed his best among those voters who described their family’s financial situation as “getting ahead” and worst with those said they were “falling behind.”

And with those opposed to or neutral about the tea party movement, Romney scored strongly in all three states, only coming up short in New Hampshire because of Jon Huntsman’s appeal to non-Republicans.

The danger for Romney is if Gingrich wins Florida and becomes the de facto leader of the Tea Party cause.

“The Romney campaign has been the cucumber sandwiches on silver trays campaign,” said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. “Newt is running a torches and pitchforks campaign. Who do you think Republicans would want to storm the castle with? When you’re storming the castle you don’t care if your leader has slept around, is on his 50th wife – you just want somebody who says, ‘Let’s go kill them!’”

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The demographic differences between Romney and Gingrich come to life at their campaign appearances.

Take the dueling election night parties last Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

Romney’s was a well-organized affair filled with well-scrubbed and well-tailored men and women who could’ve stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalog.

The cars in the parking lot both at Romney’s gathering and the Columbia hotel where many of his out-of-state supporters stayed were dotted with late-model Lexuses and Mercedes.

Meanwhile, the Gingrich event was steamy, disorganized, featured a DJ, cash bar and a motorcycle repairman who repeatedly interrupted the victory speech with shouts of encouragement.

“Wipe the floor with him, Newt!,” bellowed a North Carolinian Slate’s Dave Weigel identified as Vincent Sbraccia after the candidate floated his longstanding hope for a Lincoln-Douglas debate with President Obama.

Sbraccia, sporting a bandana, US Army-sponsored NASCAR driver’s suit and Gadsden flag button, responded to Gingrich’s Saul Alinsky reference with another tea party standard: “You forgot Bill Ayers, Newt!”

A similar scene took place earlier in the day when the two candidates made back-to-back appearances at Tommy’s Ham House, a campaign trail favorite in Greenville, S.C.

Linda Tollison, a supporter of Romney in 2008 and this year, arrived at the diner sporting a Ralph Lauren riding jacket and matching equestrian pants and boots.

The Gingrich crowd featured the likes of Dean Allen, a tea party activist who has authored a book titled, “Rattlesnake Revolution: The Tea Party Strikes!”

Allen wandered the crowded parking lot filled outside the pig palace, weaving between people holding handmade signs professing their love for Gingrich, handing out his card and promoting his book.

The jarring differences have been on display in Florida this week, as well.

B.J. Patel, a Tanzanian-born cardiologist dressed in a white shirt and tie, attended the Tampa State of the Union speech and praised Romney’s business background — but said he wished the former Massachusetts governor was more feisty in battling Gingrich.

“I think he has the business sense to run the country, but people need to know that besides business, he can fight for other things that the nation needs,” Patel said.

Down the coast at a Gingrich rally in Sarasota Tuesday, a decidedly different crowd showed up.

Diann Franks was recently laid off from JC Penney.

Wearing khakis, black New Balance tennis shoes, a worn brown leather jacket and fanny pack, she came to the event carrying a copy of a Gingrich book.

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“Just in general we need a leader,” said Franks. “Somebody who can just put their foot down and say we’re mad as…and we’re not taking it anymore.”

The sense of anger is palpable among Gingrich’s middle-class supporters. They’re often fearful about their own financial situation and think Washington doesn’t need to be changed — it needs to be blown up.

David D. of Tampa, he wouldn’t share his full last name, was at the pre-debate rally Monday, sporting jeans and a “Tea Party Patriots” t-shirt.

David, who works in accounting, said he had been a Herman Cain supporter but moved over to Gingrich after his first choice dropped out.

“The people who work, the people who pay taxes are just tired,” he explained. “We don’t have leaders who will take it to him. Romney won’t go aggressive like Newt will with Obama. What you saw in that debate in South Carolina was passion.”

Cindy Phair from Inverness was nearby hoisting a Gingrich sign, too.

She’s a retired RN, but is going back to work part time to pay bills.

“I’m afraid we’re heading for another depression,” she said.

Romney backers acknowledge their candidate’s difficulty with the most stirred-up element of the GOP base, but argue that Gingrich’s decades in the capital will eventually undermine his claim on outsider status.

“He’s never going to be the candidate that appeals to that anger and rage among people toward Washington,” said a Romney adviser. “The fact is, though, he’s the only candidate who hasn’t spent his entire adult life in Washington. Newt only really understands the economy from the Washington perspective.”

Another Romney adviser was more derisive of the Anybody But Mitt Republicans.

“They like preachers,” the adviser said of the tea party demographic. “If you take them to a tent meeting they’ll get whipped into a frenzy. That’s how people like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich get women to fall into bed with them.”

Gingrich allies, meanwhile, are delighted about the continued focus on Romney’s wealth and are nearly giddy that he’s still emphasizing his CEO experience even as his troubles with down-scale voters become apparent.

“Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business, or a state,” Romney said on Election Night Saturday in South Carolina.

Chortled Craig Shirley, a Gingrich supporter who’s writing a biography of the former speaker: “Can you imagine going to a garage mechanic in Daytona and saying, ‘We need an executive in Washington?’ He’d hit you with the wrench I’d hand him.”

Reid J. Epstein, Juana Summers and Ginger Gibson contributed to this report.

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