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Does Mitt Romney Really Understand That Florida Is up for Grabs?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

As readers know, this syndicated column is based out of the Republican-rich "First Coast" of Florida and Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union. Since 2000, I have been polling and analyzing Florida races for broadcast names such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, as well as CNN and a host of others. We polled Florida for Politico in 2008 and correctly showed Barack Obama winning by 1 percentage point.

As of now, were I to speak to Mitt Romney (which for most mortals is an impossible feat), I would advise him that touring the state is not enough to beat President Obama. Florida is a state so large and diverse that it rarely chooses clear political "rock stars."

There have been exceptions to this rule. The late Lawton Chiles on the Democratic side was beloved by most of the state, both as a senator and governor. And Bill Clinton was so popular in South Florida that had the arrogant Gore campaign truly asked him to barnstorm that area (instead of a nearly invisible visit), Gore would likely have won the state and the presidency.

The Republican stars are few. Former Gov. Charlie Crist was -- until he flipped and flopped his way into obscurity -- proving that nice guys with no political grounding end up in last place. There really are only two Republican icons in the Sunshine State today -- the calm and cool veteran Jeb Bush and the fiery new U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Jeb is not his daddy's or his brother's Bush (not that they were bad -- I happen to think both were fine men and good leaders). But Jeb is the politically savvy, intellectually curious and in touch with the electronic world "senior" statesman who just has it all going for him. He pulls the reasonable Republicans back in line, and yes, he is still revered in the state.

Marco is the young man Floridians watched grow into a package of political energy and brilliance. I am telling you right now, and with all due deference to Paul Ryan, had Rubio been the nominee, Romney would have secured Florida, one of the big three swing states (along with Ohio and Virginia). Instead, he has secured nothing.

And a really non-hip GOP convention filled with images of white men of "senior status" (hey, I'm one of them) sent an uninspiring image to a barely interested electorate resulting in a non-bump in the polls.

Don't get me wrong, I thought Mitt Romney himself gave the speech of his life in Tampa, Fla. But it was not enough to ignite a Republican electorate that never saw at a decent hour Herman Cain (duh, an African-American conservative who can wow crowds), or Newt Gingrich (alone, and as the firebrand he can be) or Donald Trump, who could have electrified the crowd without talking to an empty chair.

Ohio, I am told by my polling friends, will be difficult if not impossible for Romney to carry. So the Ryan choice will have to be a national one, one that lets him serve as the tough conservative attack dog he can so easily be. Virginia is a possibility for Romney, and my guess is that North Carolina, despite the convention's presence, will go Republican.

But no one wins the presidency without Florida. And the polls show that even following the GOP convention, the state is dead even or with a slight Obama lead. I won't really feel comfortable about who is leading the race until our firm polls it in late October.

In the meantime, I can certainly tell the Romney camp that they had better remind Floridians just how bad things have been and are under President Obama. Florida is still lagging behind most other states in its economic recovery. But if you don't hammer that fact home and put it at Obama's doorstep, a rival candidate gains no ground. Florida is about voter turnout and a narrow strip of independent voters found primarily in a line from Tampa-St. Pete, through Orlando and to the east coast.

I certainly would like to tell my readers both nationally and on the First Coast that Romney can get the stick out of his rear end and his people can get their noses out of the air long enough to win Florida. But as Jeb Bush's mother once famously said about another race, "I've seen this movie before, and I don't like the ending."

Romney better get tough and let Marco and Jeb bring Florida home for him, or he will be joining Bob Dole and John McCain in the too-stiff-to-win club.

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