TAMPA, Fla. -- As Mitt Romney took to the makeshift stage here at the National Gypsum Company on the outskirts of Tampa, two noticeable items bracketed his vision. They were teleprompters, the kind that, when used by President Barack Obama, elicits mockery from conservative onlookers.
The former Massachusetts governor nevertheless used them to deliver a speech, one his campaign billed as a prebuttal to the State of the Union address that President Obama will deliver tonight in Washington.
The text of the speech was standard fare, albeit with details about the venue incorporated throughout. The National Gypsum Company used to be a vibrant place. When the Sunshine State was in the midst of a housing boom, this company couldn't make drywall fast enough to accommodate all of the construction projects. Local officials ended up having to import material from China, despite concerns over lax safety standards.
The housing boom eventually died down before ultimately collapsing. And with that collapse, demand for the company's products plummeted. The massive warehouse is still there, but it could now serve as a storage unit -- as well as a political metaphor.
"Here in Florida, people used to wake up and look forward to a hard day’s work and a good, honest wage," said Romney, under a sign that read, "Obama Isn't Working." "The money they earned helped support families and build communities. Today, too many factory floors are silent, warehouses are deserted, corporate offices are empty, and real estate endeavors are abandoned. Floridians are struggling to find a job, keep a home, and raise a family."
This was great theater and the crowd chewed it up. Dunia Berrios, a Tampa resident who had come to the state from Cuba in 1980, proudly declared herself a Romney enthusiast. He had, she said, exhibited the "fundamentals and standards" that were needed for the office of the president.
"We don't want this wonderful country to become Cuba," she said, when asked what she thought of Obama's presidency.
Coming off of a bad defeat in the South Carolina primary, Romney's campaign is hoping that there are enough voters like Berrios who will buffer his slide. Publicly, aides act as if another loss in Florida would be no big deal. Spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom, briefing reporters shortly after Romney spoke, noted that the primary was fundamentally a contest for delegates.
"We want to win," he said, "but no state is a must-win. This election, this nomination isn't going to be decided here in Florida. The nomination process is a long process that takes place over a period of many months and many different contests."
In fact, Florida is a firewall between Romney and the ever-eager chorus of naysayers who are waiting for a tectonic stumble. The Romney campaign knows this -- hence the sharp attacks on Newt Gingrich during Monday night's debates, the use of a Teleprompter on Tuesday morning and the impeccably planned stagecraft and attention to detail that is to come as the candidate traverses the state.
Whereas in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney had stuck primarily to town hall formats, in Florida, his second major event was a small roundtable with struggling homeowners.
"It is a different state, a different primary state, ten media markets," said Ferhnstrom. "You will see fewer rallies, even though we did one the first night we arrived here. I think you will see fewer rallies than we did in South Carolina. More message-driven events, such as you saw here today in the speech and yesterday in the roundtable. I think that is dictated by the size of Florida and the type of campaign you have to run."