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Romney, Gingrich Appeals To GOP Right Raise General-Election Hurdles

Newt Gingrich autographs a copy of his book in Orlando, Fla., Jan. 13.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
Newt Gingrich autographs a copy of his book in Orlando, Fla., Jan. 13.

(Updated at 7:46 pm ET)

With Newt Gingrich beating Mitt Romney in South Carolina as soundly as the Johnny Rebels in 1861 thrashed the Billy Yanks at Bull Run (or the First Battle of Manassas, depending on your view), the Republican presidential nomination contest marches southward to Florida.

There in the Sunshine State, the campaign promises to be an even more hard- fought affair than in South Carolina, with both candidates battling for their party's conservative soul by out-righting each other.

Of course, the further right you go as a Republican presidential candidate, the more ground you have to cover to get closer to the center for the general election to win over enough voters in the non-conservative part of the electorate.

But first you have to become the Republican nominee to have the luxury of such worries, and that's what Gingrich and Romney are all about right now, becoming the eventual GOP standard bearer. The general election can wait.

Gingrich, in a play for conservatives everywhere, credited South Carolinians for for first discovering what he hopes Floridians will soon learn as well. On CBS' Face The Nation, he said:

"South Carolinians were the first state to really understand how liberal Gov. Romney's record was as the governor of Massachusetts. He lost 15 to 20 points over the course of the two weeks as people began to realize that he has been pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, in a whole range of areas. That despite his advertising and pretending, it's clear that he was way to the left of South Carolinians."

That's a message Gingrich is sure to pound away on for the next 10 days in Florida.

Meanwhile Romney promised to do some educating about Gingrich going forward. On Fox News Sunday he said:

"I do think that conservative values do play an enormous role and I think the speaker has some explaining to do for sitting down on the sofa with Nancy Pelosi and arguing for climate change regulation, for calling the Paul Ryan plan right wing social engineering.

"You're going to look at his record and say, well, he is not so conservative, as a reliable conservative leader, as people might have imagined."

South Carolina exit polls tell the tale of the importance of appealing to conservative voters in Southern primaries. Sixty-eight percent of those who voted Saturday described themselves as conservative.

Large swaths of Florida are more similar to South Carolina than different. Exit polling done on the day of the 2008 Florida presidential primary found 61 percent of voters there describing themselves as conservative.

A candidate hoping to win those conservatives has to convincingly deliver a message that fires up those voters. That's why Gingrich made sure to remind everyone Sunday that as Massachusetts governor in the mid-2000s, Romney governed as a moderate on abortion, guns and taxes. (Gingrich forcefully laid out his case against Romney's conservative credentials on Face The Nation starting at about the 4:35 mark in the video.)

But Gingrich and Romney will have to carefully calibrate their message, according to Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. Fiscal conservatism is a safer path in Florida than social conservatism.

"Social conservatives are not a dominant part of this electorate," McManus said in an interview.

Also, Florida Republicans are more environmentally minded, McManus said. "Florida Republicans are a bit more environmentally sensitive than Republicans in a lot of other places. Typically because many of them moved from other places because of our environmental assets," she said.

So attacking the Environmental Protection Agency or calling for more offshore energy exploration and production aren't necessarily sure-fire applause lines with every audience of Florida Republicans as they might be elsewhere.

No less than Republican heavyweight political strategist Karl Rove has warned his party repeatedly against moving so far right in the primaries that it damages its eventual nominee's chances to defeat President Barack Obama in the general election.

In August, Rove warned during a Fox News appearance:

"You don't want these candidates moving so right in the Republican primary that it becomes impossible for them to win the general election, because it will become a self-defeating message in the primary.

"People want to win. They don't want somebody who goes so far to the extremes of either party that they lack a chance to carry a victory off in November."

Paul Begala, a political aide to President Bill Clinton frequent Democratic commentator on CNN and elsewhere, recently wrote in the Daily Beast how this need, as demonstrated by Gingrich and Romney, to appeal to a party whose base has moved even further rightward could explain why some top GOP prospects decided not to make the 2012 race.

"My suspicion is, the reason the cream of the GOP crop is sitting out 2012 is not because they're worried they can't beat Obama straight up. It's because they're worried that their base is so crazy they'll be dragged so far to the right in the primaries that Obama will capture the center in the general election and make it impossible for them to win...

"... The price of winning the votes of the new, ultra-right GOP may make the party's presidential nomination a prize not worth winning."

But that hasn't stopped them. Gingrich continues his rhetorical attacks on federal judges with whom he disagrees, including one in his South Carolina victory speech. That may appeal to the conservative faithful but is likely to turn off more centrist voters.

Meanwhile, Romney has taken a position to the right of Gingrich on immigration. Unlike Gingrich, who has advanced the idea of illegal immigrants with deep ties to their U.S. communities being given legal status to remain in the U.S., Romney opposes that idea and has promised to veto the DREAM Act if Congress were to pass the measure and he were in the Oval Office.

Like Gingrich on judges, Romney's hard-line stance on young immigrants who had no choice when their parents brought them illegally into the U.S. is unlikely a winner in a general election campaign.

Immigration is an issue that will cut far differently in Florida than it did in South Carolina, said McManus. "It doesn't work real well for anybody down here because you've got, really, four different perspectives on it down here that will probably the trickiest issue they have to cover," she said.

Many older Floridians and those in the military have viewed immigration as a potential national-security threat ever since 9/11 because some of the hijackers received flight training in the state, McManus said.

Working class Floridians, meanwhile, view immigration as a competitive threat in a state with higher than average unemployment rate, she added.

Republican businesspeople in agriculture and tourism, however, have a positive view, seeing immigration as their lifeblood.

They are related by outlook to Florida Republicans like Jeb Bush, the former governor, she said. Those Republicans understand the importance of Latino voters to the GOP's future and the state's economy.

"It just is an issue, no matter which way they go, they're going to offend a certain part of the base and also a certain part of the overall electorate beyond just the party," McManus said.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.