Newt Gingrich's personal and political baggage is giving even the most hard-core Republicans pause in a conservative swath of the state.
"Not Gingrich" is how Annette Purvis says she plans to vote. "I've never liked Gingrich. Never. Never in the history of Gingrich."
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Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich speaks to the media outside the Idlewild Baptist Church January 29, 2012 Lutz, Florida.
She's turned off by what she calls his moral and ethical issues. He's been divorced twice, is an admitted adulterer and was the first House speaker to be reprimanded by his colleagues for ethical misconduct. All that has Purvis, a 49-year-old wife and mother from Laurel Hill near the Alabama border, looking elsewhere. "I'll probably do Romney," she adds, her hesitation apparent.
Marty Upfield, a 64-year-old retiree from Pensacola, seems equally uneasy with Gingrich. She, too, pointed to Gingrich's political record and personal background as a problem. She's considering voting for Mitt Romney, who she says isn't conservative enough, even though her political views are more in line with Gingrich's positions.
"But it is about trust," says Upfield. "I need to have a little more certainty that he's changed in some ways."
This deep reluctance to back Gingrich was voiced by many of the dozen and a half people interviewed last week in this city in the Florida Panhandle that borders the Gulf of Mexico to the south and west and Alabama to the north. Gingrich's past, it seemed, was heavily influencing decisions about who to back. Many said they were resigned to choosing Romney.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney discusses his leading in the polls ahead of Florida's primary and the attacks being launched on him by his main rival, Newt Gingrich.
In one of the most conservative parts of the state, many of those interviewed said they see their political philosophy more in line with Gingrich — who led the GOP revolution that took control of the House in 1994 — than with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who in the past has espoused more moderate positions on social issues. But many also said they're considering voting for Romney, or already did during the state's early voting period, because they fear that Gingrich's history — both personally and professionally — will hurt him in a general election match up against President Barack Obama.
"I really like him. He's one of the finest speakers. He's got fantastic memory and recall," said Tim Fuller of Gingrich.
But Fuller, 68, and wife Vicki, 67, didn't pick him.
"We voted for the more electable candidate," Fuller said, adding that they chose Romney — "the lesser of two evils."
On the minds of many interviewed: Gingrich's ethics case while serving as House speaker, the $1.65 million his businesses made off Freddie Mac before he criticized the mortgage giant during his campaign, and his three marriages.
"I like him. I like his mannerisms. I just don't think I can vote for him. There's too much out there," said Bonnie Meenen, 64. Romney may get her vote because of that.
Some also were put off by Gingrich's personality.
"I think Newt's temper is too short," said David Nobles, 57, who voted for Romney. "It came down to Newt and Mitt, and Mitt just seems like more presidential material than Newt."
That Gingrich, who has emerged as the more conservative alternative to Romney, doesn't have a lock on this part of the state, regardless of his flaws, may not bode well for his prospects in other, more diverse parts of Florida ahead of Tuesday's pivotal primary. And the reluctance among some Republicans here to embrace Gingrich indicates that Romney's strategy to raise questions about Gingrich's character may be working.
Over the past week, Romney and his allies have castigated Gingrich on the campaign trail and in TV ads blanketing the state.
"While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in," says a Romney campaign ad airing in this state. The commercial says that Gingrich collected more than $1.6 million from "the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis."
Romney's team has taken a more subtle approach in attacking Gingrich for his flawed personal life. He has been emphasizing his own 42-year marriage to the same woman, as well as his five sons and numerous grandchildren, as a way to contrast himself to Gingrich. And an outside group backing Romney has run ads mentioning Gingrich's "baggage."
A Quinnipiac University poll released Friday showed Romney leading Gingrich, 38 to 29 percent. Among voters who identify as conservative, Romney and Gingrich are in a virtual tie.