Backyard politics: risks and rewards for Gingrich

January 28, 2012 - 4:35 PM
Gingrich 2012

Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures as he campaigns at The PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

COCOA, Fla. (AP) — Newt Gingrich's promise to colonize the moon isn't pie-in-the-sky in Florida. It illustrates an adage: All politics is local.

Fred Register is among Florida's voters — Republicans and Democrats alike — who know firsthand what deficit reduction can mean. The state's space industry lost several thousand jobs to NASA budget cuts.

"If we give up on space, we might as well give up on everything," said Register, a 79-year-old a Republican who retired from the space program after five decades.

No issue better illustrates the risks and rewards of backyard politics than Florida's space industry. Gingrich ignited the discussion by making a bold declaration at a packed rally last week in Cocoa, about 20 miles from the Kennedy Space Center.

"By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American," he said before being interrupted by applause.

Backyard politics — sometimes knocked as pandering — has long been part of presidential campaigns. Candidates this month alone have promised to address gay marriage in Iowa, hydroelectric power in New Hampshire and port development in South Carolina. They've joined state lawmakers' fight against labor union influence in New Hampshire and tiptoed around Iowa's controversial ethanol subsidies.

Gingrich says his promise reflects a long admiration of space exploration. But it also reflects a successful campaign strategy. His win in South Carolina was aided, at least in part, by his vocal support for a plan to dredge the Port of Charleston, among other local issues.

The moon issue, however, opened him to attacks from his rivals, led by Mitt Romney, who ridiculed Gingrich's space ideas during Thursday's presidential debate as an incredibly expensive initiative.

"I spent 25 years in business," Romney said. "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"

The former Massachusetts governor ticked off projects the former House speaker had promised: a new interstate highway for South Carolina and dredging the port of Charleston; burying a power line coming into New Hampshire from Canada.

"Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now," Romney said. "We've got to say 'no' to this kind of spending."

Indeed, Romney has in recent months focused more than his rivals on national issues, such as the economy and federal budget deficits. But he has not avoided local issues altogether.

Romney visited Florida's Space Coast days after Gingrich, speaking to voters on a stage flanked by a capsule that once traveled on the space shuttle.

"A strong and vibrant space program is part of being an exceptional nation," he declared Friday, the day after attacking Gingrich's ideas during the debate.

And he has engaged in backyard politics in other states, albeit less enthusiastically than Gingrich.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley says she privately discussed local concerns about nuclear waste disposal with Romney, although he avoided the issue in public. And Romney joined his competitors in attacking the National Labor Relations Board for filing a lawsuit alleging that Boeing Co. opened a plant in South Carolina to punish the Machinists union for a series of work slowdowns. The NLRB dropped the lawsuit in December when the Machinists approved a four-year contract extension with Boeing.

Gingrich isn't apologizing for his local focus.

"I thought we were a country where one of the purposes of candidates going around was to actually learn about the states they campaigned in and actually be responsive to the needs of the states they campaign in," he said in last week's debate.

That's a message that resonates with Register, the retired Space Coast resident. Thanks to all the attention leading up to Florida's primary, he thinks a new president might help revive the nation's space industry, putting his neighbors back to work.

"We've been hit pretty hard," he said. "In 2013 maybe we'll see a light."