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Florida Primary 2012: Newt Gingrich courts last-minute votes along I-4 on primary day

6:10 PM, Jan 31, 2012   |    comments
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Plant City, Florida -- Newt Gingrich was on the campaign trail right up to the last minute Tuesday, acting like a seasoned politician who knew he might be running out of time.

Gone was the confidence and swagger Gingrich showed in those first days after his victory in South Carolina. Instead, he seemed to be working hard for every last vote.

Emerging from his political tour bus on this primary Tuesday, Gingrich was a man of many handshakes but very few words.

Asked, "How do you like Florida?" Gingrich said "I like it a lot."

He might have liked it more if the latest polls had him ahead, as they had him behind Mitt Romney.

When asked more pointedly, "How you feeling about today?" Gingrich, who'd been happy to stop and speak until now, only muttered, "Fine."

The former House speaker, hoping to drum-up last minute votes, made several stops - posing for pictures embraces. The Gingrich campaign bus made at least three stops, including Plant City. It was no strategic accident, underscoring the importance of the I-4 corridor.

One of three stops along the road to Orlando was 'Fred's Country Kitchen.' The owner, Fred Johnson,  is no stranger to campaign visits.

"I'm glad to have any of the candidates come by," said Johnson, a Gingrich supporter.

Gingrich was clearly feeling comforted by more than the comfort food at Fred's. He has strong support in this area, from people like Stan Hodges, who'd voted for the former House speaker this morning. Hodges said he couldn't wait to tell his nine grandkids that he'd shaken Gingrich's hand just a few hours later.

"Surprised, very surprised," to see Gingrich at the very place he'd chosen to eat lunch.

Still at question though is whether the friendly confines of Plant City restaurant represent a true cross-section of Florida's GOP voters. Whether there are enough "Fred's folks" out there to deliver Gingrich a victory.

Michael DelCiello hopes so. He made the trip to Plant City to meet Gingrich.

"I know he's a Washington insider. I hear all about how we gotta get Washington out of Washington. But, with his experience, I think he can turn this economy around," said DelCiello.

If he loses in Florida, Gingrich will have time to re-group. February is a lack-luster month for the candidates. There's one debate in about three weeks from now. Also Gingrich isn't even on the Missouri primary ballot.

Still, he he vows to see his campaign all the way through to the GOP convention in Tampa this summer. 

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