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Published: Sunday, 1/29/2012

Candidates flock to The Villages

Retirement community a must stop before Florida's primary

BY DAN MAJORS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- The roads that lead to Florida's fastest-growing retirement community are smooth, level, straight, and easy for the residents' golf carts to navigate.

And the Republican candidates for president know them well.

"If you are a wise Republican politician, you manage to come to The Villages whenever you can," said resident Rich Cole, president of The Villages Republican Club of Sumter County, the largest GOP group in the state.

"Our people are very concerned, very well informed. And they're very fiscally conservative."

Nearly all of the Republican aspirants have stopped by at one time or another in anticipation of Tuesday's pivotal Florida primary. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will be speaking here on Sunday, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a rally set for Monday evening.

Last week former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum visited, and before that -- back in the fall, before dropping out of the race -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain came through.

Time spent in The Villages is time well spent for Republican candidates.

Carved out of 25,000 acres of cattle country in north-central Florida, The Villages was established in the late 1970s for retirees who sought a clean and convenient community designed with them in mind. Residents, who must be at least 55 years old to own property, live along gated streets and have access -- via their golf carts -- to churches, theaters, restaurants, and activities. People under the age of 18 can visit, but they can't live here.

A magnet for older people eager to escape the cold of the North, the population has boomed to nearly 90,000, still averaging 300 home purchases a month, many of them new homes.

The Villages is sprawled into three Florida counties, but most of it is in Sumter County.

It is represented by two U.S. House districts, both of which are decidedly Republican. There are nearly 40 golf courses -- though most of them have only nine holes -- and The Villages has its own newspaper, its own magazine, and its own radio and television stations.

Census figures show that more than 98 percent of the residents are white and about 1 percent are Hispanic.

The community has all the makings of rock-ribbed Republican country. Sumter County has 33,807 registered Republicans, compared to 22,429 Democrats and 9,854 non-affiliated. In the 2008 primary election, voter turnout was more than 80 percent.

"Part of it is because the early voting makes it easier, but it's also because of the demographic here," said Don Burgess, 75, a retired banker and a Sumter County commissioner. "More than half the voters here have already voted."

Mr. Burgess, who moved here 14 years ago, is a member of the executive committee for Mr. Romney. He started out as a supporter of Mr. Perry and worked for him in organizing the first Republican debate in Orlando in the fall. But Mr. Perry faded fast.

His late arrival in the Romney camp doesn't mean Mr. Burgess is short of enthusiasm. Because The Villages bans yard signs and door-to-door politicking, Mr. Burgess has been engaging neighbors at the town's many social functions.

The Romney signs in the windows of his home face out to the street out front and the golf course along his backyard.

Four years ago, Mr. Burgess was a county coordinator for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out of the race early. He then backed Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), with whom he shared a military background, "because I knew more about him."

While Mr. McCain won the 2008 Florida primary -- by a slim 5 percent -- Mr. Romney laid claim to The Villages vote, winning Sumter County by a double-digit margin.

This election, Mr. McCain is endorsing Mr. Romney and appeared at a rally in The Villages on his behalf Friday.

A straw poll of 197 Republican Club members Thursday gave Mr. Romney 52 percent, Mr. Gingrich 36 percent, Mr. Santorum 10 percent, and the rest undecided. Texas Rep. Ron Paul did not get a vote.

But Mr. Gingrich is still strong here.

Don Eaton, 74, a retiree from Indiana, is a member of three Republican clubs in The Villages -- including the Tea Party -- and he started the Conservative Liberty Alliance, which boasts 250 members. The group does not endorse a candidate, but Mr. Eaton and his wife are big supporters of Mr. Gingrich.

"I remember when he was speaker," said Mr. Eaton, who will lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Sunday's Gingrich event. "I think he was great. He brought the party back."

Mr. Eaton spends his mornings sitting in a folding chair outside his home, holding a "Newt" sign, and he has handed out voter-information material, which is nonpartisan, but he believes it helps his candidate. Still, he took part in Thursday's straw poll and knows what his man is up against.

"I think it's going to be close," Mr. Eaton said. "Maybe Newt can pull it out. But he can survive a loss, if it's within a few percentage points. He needs to keep it close so he can continue to generate fund-raising."

Regardless of who wins Tuesday, Mr. Eaton said he will back the eventual nominee and will be there in Tampa this summer at the Republican National Convention.

"You'll see me," he said. "I'll be the one yelling and jumping up and down for whoever wins."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dan Majors is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Dan Majors at: dmajors@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1456.



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