TAMPA, Florida - The American elections are so prolonged and expensive that a different system would probably free up money for a pony for each U.S. citizen (a pony for each citizen is one of the campaign promises of the oddest presidential candidate, Vermin Supreme, who actually received 833 votes in last month's New Hampshire primary ). But the Americans will never give up their elections, even if - or maybe because - they sometimes resemble a carnival.
"It's the whole political process," said Sue Gibbs, retired school teacher and Newt Gingrich supporter, adjusting the colorful new buttons on her hat, which is topped with a toy elephant, ahead of her candidate's rally in Tampa the day before Florida's Republican primary. "I am so lucky and so blessed to be involved. Had I retired in the north, it wouldn't happen. But they are all coming to Florida!"
She doesn't understand how government has become so profligate, when she, a retiree who "counts every penny," pays her credit cards bills in full and on time. She also wished for more civility in the elections.
After a South Carolina drama in which Gingrich upset the front-runner, Mitt Romney's decisive Florida win has restored the former Massachusetts governor's status as the almost inevitable candidate.
"That's what the media would like you to think," said Jeremiah Greenberg, father of five. "They push Romney because he is the closest thing to Obama."
On primary day, Greenberg stood across the road from a Tampa polling station with a big sign reading "Exercise your faith" - supporting former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. When he learned I was from Israel, he switched to Hebrew. So how come he supports the most religiously conservative candidate in the race? Well, this scion of a rabbinic family is a Messianic Jew. "If the Lubavitch believe Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah, I can believe Jesus is the savior," he proclaimed.
Greenberg knows Santorum is the underdog, but "he is the most principled candidate. I was disappointed he couldn't come to campaign here more, but after Iowa, I decided to support him, because Iowans did the homework for the rest of the nation, meeting with all the candidates for five weeks, and they chose him."
Greenberg's candidate didn't do well Tuesday night: 46.4 percent of Florida Republican voters chose Romney, 31.9 percent opted for Gingrich, 13.4 percent for Santorum and 7 percent for Ron Paul, who preferred to spend his time campaigning in later primary states (though at the University of South Florida, where the polling booth was located in the local Hillel offices, there were plenty of signs supporting him - and none for other candidates ).
Romney celebrated early, at the Tampa Convention center. He warned the Democrats that "a competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us," and promised his presidency would "begin a new era of American prosperity," repeal Obama's health-care law, and "stand with our friends and speak out for those seeking freedom."
"I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become," he told the cheering audience. "That America is still out there."
From Florida, Romney went on to rallies in Minnesota and Nevada. One of those who followed him was Jim Wilson, a veteran driving a truck decorated with two large Romney signs. "I am spending my grandchildren's money so hopefully they'll have something left of this country," he said. "I started in August in Iowa, and intend to finish at the inaugural ball." Why? "Because Mitt Romney is the only one that can beat Obama. He has the experience, the integrity and the energy."
Democrats fight back
But the Democrats weren't lying low: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL ), who heads the Democratic National Committee, was ready to tear into the winner on the stairs of the same Tampa convention center where Romney celebrated his victory.
"I've been spending some time chasing the Republican candidates around the country," she admitted to Haaretz. "Because I am not going to let them get away on my watch as DNC chairman with distorting and lying about the president, and I think voters need to know there is a dramatic contrast and a clear choice" between Obama and Romney.
I told her some Gingrich supporters say they reject Romney because to them, Romney is Obama. "I am not surprised," she shrugged. "The Republicans have no idea who or what Mitt Romney stands for, because he was willing to say anything to get elected. In Iowa he says he'll veto the DREAM act [a bill to legalize certain illegal immigrants], but in Florida he says he'll support some version of it."
So, I asked her, you are attacking Romney exclusively because a Gingrich victory would be better for Democrats?
"They are really interchangeable," she said. "They are trying to out-right-wing each other. They are all extreme."
The Republican candidates didn't focus much on Florida's Jews, since only a tiny fraction of them vote in the Republican primary: Jews constituted 3 percent of primary voters in 2008 and only 1 percent this year. Gingrich's campaign assailed Romney for "vetoing, as governor, a bill that would pay for kosher food for Jewish seniors in his state," via robocalls wrongfully claiming that Holocaust survivors "for the first time were forced to eat nonkosher because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher." Jewish seniors were not actually forced to eat nonkosher, but when campaigning, anything that harms your opponent is kosher.
Most Jewish voters we met were more worried about the economy. But some asked the candidates who bothered to show up about Israel and Iran, others about Jonathan Pollard.
At one Romney rally, I met an anomaly: Daniel Najman, an Orthodox Jew who says he supports Ron Paul - because of his support for Israel.
"He is considered to be anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish, but he wants to cut all foreign aid, including money to Israel," Najman said. "I've spoken many times to Israelis about the 'two-state final solution,' and they say it's dangerous, but they can't reject it because of America. If there is no aid, there can be, as Ron Paul says, equal relations. Israel can do what it wants. Besides, the Jewish state doesn't need any charity."
Wasserman Schultz said she is confident that the "overwhelming majority of Jews in Florida and over the country will support President Obama. As Jews, we care about domestic policy, health care, education; we stand for people who have no voice; and the Republicans don't agree with the Jewish community on any of those issues. And on Israel, the Israeli leadership has repeatedly said that President Obama has been Israel's greatest friend."
For Gingrich, Florida was bad news: Romney succeeded in establishing his credentials even among the state's conservatives. Romney also did well among women - perhaps in part because of his wife Ann's active role in his campaign events. She introduces him as her husband, father of her five sons and America's next president, and stresses his support for her role as a mother, which resonates with many American women. Romney is not ashamed to introduce her as "my sweetheart" and extend his hand for her when she gets off the bus.
In contrast, Callista Gingrich, the former speaker's wife and his advisor behind the scenes, usually stands silently near her husband at rallies, smiling, nodding, clapping hands and moving her lips, saying: "That's right, that's right."
There were plenty of Gingrich supporters in Florida. At one polling station, Cuban American retiree Francisco Rivera couldn't pronounce his name correctly, calling him "Girich." But for him, "Girich" was the right choice, because "Girich is straight, and Romney, I don't like him; he changes too much." Still, Tuesday wasn't a good day for him.
For Gingrich, who said "it's a two-man race" and promised to stay in it until the nomination in August, the big question is whether he can keep the donations flowing - and whether he can hold on to his base.
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