January 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm
Newt Gingrich was in Miami on Friday, at what one person told me was the presidential-hopeful-equivalent of a catholic visiting the Vatican: the Versailles Cafe in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
The two rallies were filled with all the trappings of a presidential campaign: eager supporters, lots of handshakes, smiling candidates, stump speeches, and about a billion reporters.
But the two events were very different. Let me try to give you a sense of what they were like from someone who saw both in-person.
Let’s start with Romney.
First of all, he showed up on time. For political reporters, that was news in-and-of-itself. These guys and gals are NEVER on time. It cuts across party affiliation. While I was a reporter in Upstate New York, I once waited for President Obama for two hours. And the rule is always the tighter the deadline, the longer they make you wait. Of course, yesterday, with a rally scheduled for one-in-the-afternoon, I wouldn’t have cared if he was a whole hour late (the news goes on at 5 o’clock). So naturally, he showed up early the one time it didn’t matter.
But his event was more “presidential” then I expected. There were clear cut areas for everyone to be. He spoke on a stage surrounded by standing supporters to give the whole event an intimate look.
Reporters were not given a shot to ask questions along a rope line, during an interview setting or as he was walking from the building into his car.
The former governor gave a standard stump speech, ignoring the news of the day, the other candidates and didn’t take any questions from his audience. The whole thing looked like a town hall, but wasn’t.
When I did get near Romney while he was shaking hands after his talk, I stuck my mic in and shouted several questions above the roar. But being the polished presidential candidate he is (ie NOT Herman Cain), he was very good at ignoring me and the other reporters dying to get him to say something that wasn’t in the script.
I even tried to find where his car was parked outside the convention center, but was told by a building security guard that I was not welcome down that particular alley.
“Is that where his car is?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
After about fifteen minutes of handshaking and autograph signings, he disappeared behind the curtains, and that was the last I saw of Mitt Romney on Thursday.
Now, let’s talk about Newt’s visit.
As soon as I saw the layout of The Versailles Cafe, I knew this one would be different.
There was an absolute HORDE of reporters – local, national, print, broadcast, English and Spanish-language – set up around the front serving window of the restaurant. The space was already cramped, and more were arriving.
By about nine (a half-hour late), Newt arrived. Except I couldn’t see him, because a horde of reporters I didn’t even notice before, lurched towards him and shouted as many questions as they could at him. He answered them all.
He drank his little cups of “cafecito (Cuban espresso), and chatted with reporters all the while. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but had my mic shoved around about ten people in hopes I would pick up some sound. My photographer for the day – the expert veteran Gary Russ – was holding his giant news camera high above his head, like a periscope, to see above the reporters.
Newt was eventually dragged inside the building by his handlers. But he couldn’t resist answering more questions along the way.
“That’s how he is,” his daughter told me later. “He loves to talk.”
In a room that was absolutely JAMMED in the restaurant, Newt addressed a crowd of Cuban-American voters, talking in great detail about how his plans on the economy, on immigration reform, and addressing some of the news of the day. It was a real conversation with supporters and reporters. He managed the flow quite well, even repeating some questions that couldn’t be heard.
He and I had a brief back-and-forth about how his organization is coming together in Florida.
“We will surge very rapidly in Florida, we have a statewide organization already being developed,” he told me. “We are very confident we’re going to be able to more than match the governor in volunteers, and I think in enthusiasm there will be no comparison.”
After that part was over, it was back outside where he did a live interview with what I think was a Miami Fox affiliate, answered a few more questions to a crush of reporters, and was finally whisked back into his black Chevvy Suburban.
One national reporter told me that if Romney becomes the nominee, he expected a much-more tightly controlled operation than Gingrich, where access to the candidate would be limited. He expected that Gingrich’s style would make it much easier to develop a back-and-forth with reporters.
Does that matter to anyone other than reporters? Not sure.
Two different candidates, two styles on display.
Does it matter? Not sure of that either!!