Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich's campaign in Florida is subtle. So subtle that it doesn't seem to exist. The national campaign says that 888 Brickell Ave., a squat, eight-story unit dwarfed by neighboring bayfront towers, is the Georgian's Florida headquarters. But a floor-by-floor search shows there's nothing there. And no one answers the phone.
The pudgy history professor's new campaign chief, Jose Mallea, doesn't pick up either.
Same goes for Gingrich's Florida finance chairwoman, lobbyist Esther Nuhfer.
Moreover, Mallea has a house near Little Havana in foreclosure, and Nuhfer is closely tied to Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera, perhaps Florida's most tainted politico.
"Polls aside, I don't see any evidence of actual enthusiasm for Newt Gingrich down here," says Sean Foreman, a political science assistant professor at Barry University. "He doesn't have events here, and I've never heard from a Gingrich supporter in South Florida."
You know Newt. He helped bring Republicans to power in 1994 through his "Contract With America." And he ruled the GOP with a flabby fist for five years before bolting the Capitol after leading the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
The plucky prof's push to head the Republican ticket against Barack Obama has also been a drunken rodeo ride. In June, his staff resigned and he reported a $1 million campaign debt. He racked up $500,000 in bills at Tiffany's buying jewelry for his current wife, Callista (who was his mistress while his second wife was suffering from multiple sclerosis). Then it was disclosed he had taken at least $1.6 million in lobbying fees from Freddie Mac, even as the rancid mortgage giant wrecked the economy. Last month, Gingrich even survived calling child labor laws "stupid."
Nothing has stuck. A Florida Times-Union poll last month showed Gingrich destroying his rivals in the state, with 41 percent support to 17 percent for Mitt Romney, his closest challenger.
But Gingrich obviously knows that backing comes mostly from North Florida. Romney, by contrast, has campaigned hard for Miami, scoring a coup last month when the Diaz-Balart brothers and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen endorsed him.
Meanwhile, Newt's counterplan — to hitch his star to Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — could easily backfire. Just look at the Miami insiders he has hired in the past week:
Mallea is a young campaigner who guided Rubio's Tea Party-fueled win over Charlie Crist last year. Gingrich hired him last Monday to head the campaign's Florida efforts, and the benefits were quick — Gingrich scored dozens of headlines with his name next to Rubio's.
But the local press missed a key fact: Mallea has some financial woes of his own. In 2008, at the height of Miami's bubble, Mallea copurchased a small house near SW 21st Avenue and 13th Street for $290,000. Today the single-story home is worth only $159,000, and Mallea's lender, Branch Banking & Trust Company, is suing him in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
But that pales in comparison to the taint on Gingrich's new finance chief. Nuhfer has a long, tight relationship with Rivera, who has called her a "good friend," a "fundraising consultant," and even a "travel coordinator," according to the Miami Herald. (Political blogger Joy Reid offers another label: girlfriend. This is bolstered by a photo where she appears to have her hand on his thigh at a Miami Dade College black-tie event.) Labels aside, everyone agrees that while Rivera (who's not married) was a powerful budget chairman from 2008 to 2009, the busty lobbyist worked out of his office and roomed with his top aide.
"Esther is Rivera's top ally," says state Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat planning to run against Rivera next fall. "They were extremely close in Tallahassee."
Whatever their relationship, Nuhfer's ties to Rivera have been lucrative. In a bid for state Senate, Rivera paid her $250,000 in consulting fees. In all, Nuhfer's firm — Communication Solutions, Inc. — took in more than $800,000 in fees since 2006 from Rivera and his GOP allies, the Herald reported.
Did any of that money get kicked back to Rivera, whose finances are being probed by — get ready — the FBI, the IRS, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Miami prosecutors? Among the many questions surrounding the dapper rep: Why did Flagler Dog Track pay a half-million bucks to a company his mom owns at the same time he was fighting for its interests in the Capitol?
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A second criminal probe is looking at more than $100,000 in unreported campaign donations, some of which was spent on advertising through Nuhfer's company.
There's already some early evidence that local voters might ignore Mallea's foreclosures and Nuhfer's ties to Rivera. Last Monday, Nuhfer helped Rivera's still-golden BFF Rubio raise more than $200,000 at an Epic Hotel lunch, all while talking up her new political patron.
"The South Florida Cuban vote is up for grabs," Barry's Foreman says. "There's a chance that voters hate the other candidates enough they may actually stick with Gingrich."