Through the wide, night streets of Tampa came the pirates — tens of thousands of them, some in full regalia, tricorne hats and eye patches, plastic cutlasses and black velvet coats, girls in low-cut frilly white shirts and face paint. They filled the boulevards around the harbour and university, and came roaring through the intersections in pick-up trucks. They were good ol’ boys, all muscle and shoulders, already thickening to fat. But they were hipsters too, in wrap-around shades and chin strips. The cars were pumping out Lynyrd Skynyrd and Arcade Fire. The white girls in summer dresses had faux Mexican tatts. They chugged margaritas together, and threw up in gas station forecourts.

It was Gasparilla weekend, Tampa’s old festival and parade, when the whole city dresses like buccaneers, and restages the early days of the West Florida coast, when the place’s schizoid status was on full display. South meets north in Tampa, except the north is the south. Dixie reaches down the peninsula — the largest confederate flag in the world is in the northern suburbs of the city — and stops here. Below that, it’s northern refugees, Spanish mission suburbs, hi-tech companies and New York in exile. Florida is the US, and Tampa is Florida — it has as close to the same racial mix as the US as a whole, as any major city, and the same median income.

The old Gasparilla festival is a case in point. For more than a century it was your standard parade, floats and flowers, with a piratical theme. It died away for a while, and then it was given new life by turning it into a sort of “zombie-run”, with galleons coming up the harbour, and pirates — mostly horny U of Tampa students — rushing up into the city. To a degree, it’s a measure of the way in which the authorised public culture has changed over the decades — a parade that once expressed shared activity through order and continence, becomes an authorised carnivale, a release valve. Hard to know which to prefer really.

The old idea that 30 floral floats surmounted by skinny waving girls was a good day out seems impossibly naive now. But it’s really only 20 years ago or so that people took a packed lunch to Moomba and made a day of it. The pirate run is a lot more fun, but the price of it is a tight regulation of disarray. So on Saturday night, the police were at every corner, and all of the cross streets were locked off so that the pirates could be channelled down a few select routes. They were cops US-style too, regarding the revellers as guilty until proven innocent. There was a mild anxious buzz to the whole thing, which was doused in copious booze, chest-beating and threats of violence, another Saturday night in postmodern America.

So too the Florida Republican primary, highly authorised mayhem and chaotic pirate invasion. With three days to go until the vote — although early voting has already begun — the race threw another loop, with the latest collapse of the campaign of Newt Gingrich. Coming off a triumph in the South Carolina primary, and with a solid 3-5-point lead in the Florida polling, Gingrich looked set to make this a contest — and in so doing, rip open the whole primary process. The South Cal primary had all but destroyed Mitt Romney as a candidate anyone could have faith in, turning him instead into a capricious, oleaginous, giggling rich boy, by turns a sycophant and arrogant beyond measure, a nightmare candidate.

Having lost South Carolina with a 25-point drop off his high-point, seemed it couldn’t get any worse — until he gave a concession speech, which managed to miss both the seriousness of the defeat, and any opportunity to rally the troops. It was that night that open talk — desperate talk — of a draft-in candidate began to hit the official channels of the party’s Right, such as Fox news and National Review. With another two debates lined up, four days apart, Gingrich seemed poise to hammer it home. Romney’s performance was encouraging not merely contempt, but far more lethal emotions — pity and squeamishness. What could possibly go wrong?

For Gingrich, everything. His pirate insurgency had gone on long enough for the Republican establishment. They piled on with a multi-branched attack, laying waste to Gingrich’s central claim — that he had been a central part of the Reagan revolution in the ‘80s, a wise and judicious speaker and congressional leader in the ‘90s, and an outsider in the 2000s, waging war against the establishment. Gingrich did not score a decisive blow in the first debate — he later blamed the hosts’ insistence that the audience refrain from cheering or barracking for his poor performance — and by Wednesday, Romney’s allies were on the march. He was portrayed as a minor player in the Reagan years, and congressional record was quoted to show that he had disparaged the Gipper, which is like pissing on the Lincoln Memorial. Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan staffer, did that job on him in National Review, then Emmett Tyrell piled in at The American Spectator — another favoured Right Republican organ — arguing that Gingrich was more immoral than Bill Clinton on a personal level, even and especially at the time of the Lewinsky affair.

Key players from the ‘90s such as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey came forward to say that Gingrich had been a disaster as speaker, with an idea a minute, two out of 10 of them good — and that the Republican congress had only got its act together when Gingrich departed. No one pulled any punches, Gingrich’s defenders were few, and by the time of the Thursday debate — where Gingrich turned in a tired, lacklustre performance — it was clear that the attacks were taken their toll personally as well as publicly. Finally, there was a Gingrich special — in a speech on the “space coast” where NASA, etc, was based, Newt confidently stated that the US would have a permanent base on the moon at the end of his second term. Cheers. That it would serve as a base for the trip to Mars. More cheers. And that when 13,000 Americans lived there, it could petition for admission to the Union as a state.

Bewilderment.

Bewilderment and then, for days on end, ridicule. Newt broke the old Rich Hall rule – “play guitar and harmonica, it’s impressive, but once you strap cymbals to your knees …” and the visionary pose suddenly looked frankly mad. Mitt Romney meanwhile, had finally got his act together, hiring Brett O’Donnell, an alumnus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and a highly effective debate coach — he’s known as the “candidate whisperer” — who in a few days, cut all the cute bullshit from Romney’s act, made his crisp and simple and direct. O’Donnell, or whoever it was, focused on Romney’s USP — that he’s the only candidate independents will go for — and abandoned any notion of presenting him as a success story, family man, anecdote, anecdote, etc.

All, that, together with a good gotcha on Gingrich in the second debate — tempting Newt to attack him on his investments in Freddie Mac, etc, only to reveal that Newt has them too — and a big ad spend, has sent Gingrich plunging back down again, now trailing Romney by eight to 10 points. It won’t put him out of the race — Gingrich is looking for big wins in the southern-dominated Super Tuesday, and Texas — but Romney now does not have the stench of doom about him. He’s not in safe waters yet. The attacks on Gingrich have stirred a rag-tag army led by Sarah Palin to attack the “Republican establishment” — which now includes most of her erstwhile supporters — to launch an all-out civil war in the Right. It’s great to watch, a real pirate movie, a carnivale in the hinterland, with frat boys and keg girls howling in the night, and Old Glory flying high.

Peter Fray

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