Hillsborough voters show strong support for Romney
TAMPA - As Florida went, so did Hillsborough County, with Mitt Romney rolling to a lopsided 19-point margin here en route to a landslide victory statewide over Newt Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor dominated almost every corner of the county, from the densely populated Republican suburbs north and east of Tampa to the more rural south county areas. "Hillsborough County speaks for the rest of the state," said Romney supporter Guido Maniscalco of Tampa. "Being that (Romney) is ahead by so much, I think that's a good indication he can take the nomination." Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House, carried the rural northeast corner of the county around Plant City and Dover and some large, sparsely populated precincts along the county's eastern edge. But he was overwhelmed elsewhere."Romney won south county, he won the peninsula, he won northwest Hillsborough and he won up the Interstate 75 corridor," said Scott Paine, a professor of government at the University of Tampa. "It looks like a Romney map." In Hillsborough, as throughout the other nine major media markets in Florida, Romney's campaign advertising drowned out Gingrich's message. According to nonprofit organizations that monitor campaign spending, Romney outspent Gingrich by more than 4-to-1. "This was a massive attack," said Sam Rashid, Gingrich's Hillsborough County chairman. "Secondly, they had every power hitter in the state on their side.'' Rashid said he thinks former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will drop out of the race soon, and most of his conservative-leaning supporters will choose Gingrich over Romney. "This race is not over until the convention," Rashid said. Santorum came in third in the county with just less than 16 percent of the vote, followed by congressman Ron Paul, who polled nearly 8 percent. Paul, who has shown an ability to draw young supporters, carried two precincts in the University of South Florida area, along with a precinct in Mango and another in East Lake-Orient Park, both in east Hillsborough. Santorum carried a precinct in Temple Terrace with two-thirds of the vote. Neither Santorum nor Paul campaigned in the county except for participating in last week's debate. The results could bode well for Romney on a larger scale. Hillsborough County, with its diverse population of 1.2 million people, and registered voters split nearly evenly between the two parties, is often a bellwether in presidential elections. The victorious presidential candidate has carried the county in every election since President Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. In fact, in the 13 presidential elections since 1960, Hillsborough County has voted for the winner 12 times. The only exception was in 1992 when George H.W. Bush carried the county but lost the presidency to Clinton. Despite the lively — some might say savage — tone of the contest, turnout was relatively light in Hillsborough and statewide. About 39 percent of Hillsborough's 232,256 registered Republicans cast ballots, despite several visits here by the leading candidates and a nationally televised debate broadcast from the University of South Florida. Republicans cast 12,000 fewer votes on Tuesday than in the 2008 presidential primary in which Romney finished second to John McCain. The light turnout raises questions about how fired up Republican voters will be about defeating President Barack Obama in November. But Paine, the UT professor, says lack of enthusiasm might not be the reason for the lower turnout. In 2008, a measure to lower property taxes also was on the ballot. "Going to the polls to vote to have your taxes cut, that's a pretty strong motivator to a lot of people," Paine said. Romney jumped out to nearly a 2-to-1 margin in Hillsborough County minutes after the polls closed as absentee and early voting numbers were released. More than 52 percent of the 34,182 early and absentee votes went to Romney, while the former speaker polled just over 26 percent.