Enthusiasm For Romney Runs Low In Fla. Panhandle

May 8, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 7:07 pm

Now that former candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are endorsing Mitt Romney to be the Republican nominee for president, the GOP is working to get the rank and file to fall in line.

That's especially important in swing states like Florida. But in the primary, Romney struggled in the Panhandle of the Sunshine State — a bastion of conservative voters. And it might take more convincing for them to really get behind the former Massachusetts governor.

Back in January, the day before the Florida primary, retired schoolteacher Jane Hayes was dressed in red, white and blue at a Pensacola rally for Gingrich. She said at the time that she could not support Romney.

"Republicans that are conservative need to get the message to the establishment that — don't give us weak candidates," she said then. "You gave us [John] McCain and he was weak; you gave us [Bob] Dole and he was weak; you gave us Romney and he's weak; and somewhere along the line we have to stop and say, 'No more.' "

Now that Romney is the presumptive nominee, Hayes is torn.

"I don't know if I'm going to vote for him yet. I may be one of those that leaves it blank," she says at her home on a golf course in Santa Rosa County, Fla.

Hayes is not as pessimistic as she once was, and she seems to be looking for something to like about Romney.

"He was probably really a good governor for a liberal Northeastern state. I think he's a good family man," she says. "He has a lot in his background that would make him a good president, except he doesn't have the experience of being conservative."

'Not My First Choice'

Romney needs a strong turnout from conservatives like Hayes in the Florida Panhandle, where the politics are more akin to neighboring Georgia and Alabama than the rest of Florida.

More than 100 people turned out last week for a National Prayer Day service on the front lawn of the Santa Rosa County courthouse.

"We have a responsibility if we want to keep God as Lord in America to go to the polls and do that dirty word: vote," said speaker Frank Lay, a retired principal.

Lay says he will be voting for Romney, if not enthusiastically. "There was some stronger candidates, if you will," Lay says. "He wasn't mine. But he is now."

It's a common sentiment.

"Well, he was not my first choice," says Chrys Holley, 82. She voted for Santorum in the primary, but she says she will support Romney now and hope for the best. "He professes to be a Christian, and Christians are supposed to put God first no matter what."

Romney's Mormon faith has been a sticking point for some evangelical voters, but Holley says not for her.

Not for Lonnie Hawkins, either. He's an accountant in the Pensacola public defenders' office. Hawkins still prefers Gingrich, but he says he has no choice but to vote for Romney. He believes, incorrectly, that President Obama is Muslim.

"Would you prefer a Mormon or a Muslim?" he says. "You've got two M's to choose from."

Hawkins says the specter of another Obama administration should pull reluctant conservatives behind Romney.

Striking A Balance

Kay Addison, chairwoman of the Santa Rosa County Republican Executive Committee, says that in 2008, voters here were also slow to warm up to McCain, who lost Florida.

"People said, 'I don't like McCain. I'm not going to vote.' So I've been telling everybody, 'If you don't vote, it's like a vote for Obama.' "

The party plans to target registered Republicans who didn't vote in the last election. But Addison says Romney will have to do his part, too.

"He's going to have to come up here to the Panhandle some because so often we're like taken for granted — because, 'Oh, well, they're Republicans. They're going to vote for a Republican.' But they do need to let us know that they care if we vote or not," Addison says.

Republican strategist Scott Miller of Pensacola says that could be tricky for a candidate who has to appeal to the whole state.

"He has to be careful and balance his conservative pitch," Miller says. "And not so overcommit his conservative pitch — which is what's going to attract the North Florida voters" — that he alienates South Florida voters.

Romney also needs to be authentic, Miller says, and not try too hard to connect, like he did in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, both states where he finished in third place behind Santorum and Gingrich.

"He doesn't have to come eat grits, but it's nice to come and have a glass of iced tea," Miller says.

And as he sips, Miller says, Romney needs to show he understands the conservative values that drive so many voters in the Florida Panhandle.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now that both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have endorsed Mitt Romney, the GOP is working to get the rank and file in line. That's especially important in swing states such as Florida. During the primary there, Romney struggled on the north end of the state, a bastion of conservative voters. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on what it might take for those voters to get behind the former Massachusetts governor.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Back in January, the day before the Florida primary, retired schoolteacher Jane Hayes was dressed in red, white and blue at a Pensacola rally for Newt Gingrich. She said at the time she could not support Mitt Romney.

JANE HAYES: Republicans that are conservative need to get the message to the establishment that - don't give us weak candidates. You gave us McCain, and he was weak. You gave us Dole, and he was weak. You gave us Romney, and he's weak. And somewhere along the line, we have to stop and say, no more.

ELLIOTT: Now that Romney is the presumptive nominee, Hayes is torn. I visited the retired schoolteacher at her home on a golf course in Santa Rosa County, Florida.

HAYES: I don't know if I'm going to vote for him yet. I may be one of those that leaves it blank.

ELLIOTT: She's not as pessimistic as she once was, and seems to be looking for something to like about Romney.

HAYES: He was probably a really good governor for a liberal, northeastern state. I think he's a good family man. He has a lot in his background that would make him a good president, except he doesn't have the experience of being conservative.

ELLIOTT: Romney needs a strong turnout from conservatives like Hayes, here in the Panhandle, where the politics are more akin to neighboring Georgia and Alabama than the rest of Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heavenly Father, you have promised to bless the nation that trusts in you...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE RECITING A PRAYER)

ELLIOTT: More than 100 people turned out last week for a National Prayer Day service on the front lawn of the Santa Rosa County Courthouse.

FRANK LAY: We have a responsibility, if we want to keep God as Lord in America, to go to the polls and do that dirty word - vote. Come on!

ELLIOTT: The speaker, Frank Lay, is a retired principal. He'll be voting for Romney - if not enthusiastically.

LAY: There was - some stronger candidates, if you will. Even I - he wasn't mine. But, you know, he is now.

ELLIOTT: It's a common sentiment.

CHRYS HOLLEY: Well, he was not my first choice.

ELLIOTT: Eighty-two-year-old Chrys Holley voted for Rick Santorum in the primary but says she'll support Romney now, and hope for the best.

HOLLEY: He professes to be a Christian. And, you know, Christians are supposed to put God first, no matter what.

ELLIOTT: Romney's Mormon faith has been a sticking point for some evangelical voters, but Holley says not for her.

Not for Lonnie Hawkins, either. He's an accountant in the Pensacola Public Defenders Office. Hawkins still prefers Newt Gingrich, but says he has no choice but to vote for Romney. He incorrectly believes President Obama is Muslim.

LONNIE HAWKINS: Would you prefer a Mormon or a Muslim? You've got two M's to choose from.

ELLIOTT: Hawkins says the specter of another Obama administration should pull reluctant conservatives behind Romney. The chair of the Santa Rosa County Republican Executive Committee, Kay Addison, says in 2008, voters here were also slow to warm up to John McCain, who lost Florida.

KAY ADDISON: People said, I don't like McCain; I'm not going to vote. So I've been telling everybody: If you don't vote, it's like a vote for Obama.

ELLIOTT: The party plans to target registered Republicans who didn't vote in the last election. But Addison says Romney will have to do his part, too.

ADDISON: He's going to have to come up here to the Panhandle some because so often we're like, taken for granted because oh, well, they're Republicans; they're going to vote for a Republican. But they do need to let us know that they care if we vote or not.

ELLIOTT: Republican strategist Scott Miller, of Pensacola, says that could be tricky for a candidate who has to appeal to the whole state.

SCOTT MILLER: He has to be careful, and balance his conservative pitch and not so over-commit his conservative pitch - which is what's going to attract the North Florida voters - that he doesn't alienate us South Florida voters.

ELLIOTT: Romney also needs to be authentic, Miller says, and not try too hard to connect - like he did in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.

MILLER: He doesn't have to come eat grits, but it's nice to come and have a glass of iced tea.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sweet tea.

MILLER: Sweet tea, for sure.

ELLIOTT: And as he sips, Miller says, Romney needs to show he understands the conservative values that drive so many voters in North Florida.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.