TAMPA, FLORIDA — The battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich over who better embodies the ideal of Ronald Reagan reached its zenith here Monday when Michael Reagan, son of the sainted 40th president and conservative radio host, took the stage at a Gingrich event here and proclaimed, “you found Ronald Reagan, he’s living in each and every one of you.”
GOP candidates these days are generally keen to grab the mantle of Saint Ron under any circumstances. However, they’re particularly keen to do so in Florida. Many of the state’s elderly retirees are thought to have once been “Reagan Democrats,” meaning that even if they’re not registered as Republicans, they may be more sympathetic to that brand of Republicanism. So name-dropping the Gipper now could also be seen as a smart long-term move for any politician with an eye on the general election… or so you’d think.
I interviewed Florida Democratic party chair Rod Smith shortly after Michael Reagan — who’s been an ardent Gingrich supporter all through the recent war over Reagan-ness that’s taken over the GOP primary in the final days before the Jan. 31 primary — left the stage.
Turns out he may be following the Reagan legacy tug of war as closely as the GOP base. He says Romney (who he expects will win Tuesday’s primary vote) has lost a lot of the independents in the Sunshine State by talking so much about Reagan.
“[The way the Romney campaign has run the primary] was not about the positive vision, not about the optimistic vision for the candidate but was solely about literally going down to counting how many times one guy said the name Reagan and how many times Reagan used his name in his diary. That was a major focus of their campaign,” Smith said. “And there’s got to be a world of people out there shaking their heads and saying, ‘who cares?’”
“‘That doesn’t tell me anything that you’re going to do about my home, my job, my children’s education, our future,’” Smith went on.
His take on the Romney that’s going to emerge from Florida? Romney just can’t connect with voters “in a visceral way,” Smith said. The very public battle over Reagan’s legacy hasn’t helped solve that problem one bit, in the view of Democrats gearing up to defend this all-important swing state in November.