Romney Wins Big, Newt Loses Mean, Race Continues (But Not For Long)
In the end, the Florida Primary wasn’t even close. Living up to the expectations of the late polling, Mitt Romney beat Newt Gingrich by 14 points and, contrary to Gingrich’s prediction, ended up with more voters than Gingrich and Santorum combined:
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney rolled to victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from Newt Gingrich and reclaiming his dominant position as he urged Republicans to rally behind his quest to capture the party’s presidential nomination.
The triumph by Mr. Romney offered a forceful response to the concerns that were raised about his candidacy only 10 days ago after a stinging loss to Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. It stripped Mr. Gingrich of his momentum and raised questions about his effort to persuade Republicans of his viability.
“A competitive primary does not divide us,” Mr. Romney told his cheering supporters. “It prepares us. And we will win.”
He urged Republicans to focus on defeating President Obama, declaring, “I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation.”
The outcome of the Florida primary promised to reorder the field of Republican candidates. As Mr. Gingrich pledged to fight on, saying that he would resist attempts to drive him from the race, he faced a newly aggressive challenge from Rick Santorum, who finished a distant third here.
The growing strength of Mr. Romney was clear across nearly all segments of the Republican electorate. No state where Republicans have competed this year is more reflective of the nation’s geographical, political and ethnic diversity than Florida, and its complexity seemed to help Mr. Romney to turn back the grass-roots coalition that Mr. Gingrich had been counting on.
Mr. Romney defeated Mr. Gingrich by a margin of 14 percentage points, a telling gap that the Romney campaign hoped would be resounding enough to undermine Mr. Gingrich’s ability to be seen as a credible threat. Yet Mr. Gingrich did not see it that way. He spoke to a crowd in Orlando holding signs reading “46 States to Go,” saying he had a message for those wondering about the future of his presidential bid.
“We are going to contest every place, and we will win,” said Mr. Gingrich, who did not congratulate Mr. Romney for his victory, nor did he call him.
Sensing a new opening in the race, Mr. Santorum said Tuesday night that he intended to emerge as the true conservative alternative over Mr. Gingrich. He is running new commercials in Nevada and Colorado comparing Mr. Gingrich to Mr. Obama.
“In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity,” Mr. Santorum told supporters in Las Vegas. He said, “I’m going to be the conservative alternative, I’m going to be the anti-Mitt,’ and it didn’t work.”
The victory by Mr. Romney, delivered by a diverse coalition of the Republican electorate, allowed him to return to the hard job of pulling together a divided party and resume his argument that he has the best chance at beating Mr. Obama.
“My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity,” Mr. Romney said, sounding very much like a general election candidate. As a crowd cheered his name here in the city where Republicans will gather to crown their nominee, he added: “When we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.”
The victory was the first for Mr. Romney that came without an asterisk.
His narrow advantage on the night of the Iowa caucuses was overturned two weeks later in the certified results. His New Hampshire win was discounted by his Republican rivals because he was seen as a favorite son from a neighboring state.
But his strong finish in Florida, which drew more voters than the first three contests combined, represented an extraordinary turnaround for his prospects to win the nomination. The outcome of the race, his advisers argued, should ease the qualms among some Republicans that he is not sufficiently conservative.
And Romney’s speech last night was a recognition of that fact. There was barely any mention of any of his Republican opponents. Instead, Romney focused almost entirely on the President he’ll be facing in the General Election. This was obviously a deliberate strategy on his part to reinforce the idea of his inevitability. What was odd, though, was that Newt Gingrich did exactly the same thing. Not only was Gingrich alone among the other three candidates in neither calling Romney nor congratulating him in his speech, but he sounded last night like he was accepting his parties nomination:
The speech was vintage Gingrich, comparing his predicament to Lincoln at Gettysburg and vowing to conduct a “people’s campaign.” He made one small run at Romney, calling him “the Massachusetts moderate,” and then wandered into a rather trite recitation of his commitment to change. He rambled a bit, getting nostalgic about his Contract with America and assuring us he’d been studying “how to do this” since 1958. (He was running for president as a child?) He is going to get rid of White House czars, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and halt the war on religion. If there was a theme in there, it was hard to spot.
He obnoxiously ended by pledging: “My life, my fortune, my sacred honor.” But he’s not doing any of that. And it’s quite an insult to American patriots who have said that and meant it.
Gingrich has been reduced to a smaller-than-life figure. He’s a guy with a lot of words and very little appeal, whose meanness got the best of him and helped to wreck his campaign on a heap of attacks, insults and downright vile accusations (the latest being his claim that Romney is hostile to religion).
In other words, it was vintage Gingrich; the arrogance, the grandiose ideas, the discussion of what he’d do in the first hours after he became President. If nothing else it would make a great plot for one of those dime-store alternative history novels Gingrich likes to write. The thing is that Gingrich apparently thinks its the beginning of yet another rebirth for his Presidential campaign. As Gingrich spoke last night, his supporters were holding signs that said “46 states to go,” a reference to the remaining primaries and caucuses and Gingrich’s promise to stay in the race until the convention. Of course, Gingrich hasn’t qualified for the ballot in two of those states, and his campaign said earlier this week that it doesn’t intend to invest serious resources in either Nevada or Michigan, so it’s hard to tell how serious he really is going forward.
Ross Douthat is one who thinks that things are essentially over for Gingrich no matter what he says but Gingrich’s people say they’re holding out for Super Tuesday:
ORLANDO, Fla. — Newt Gingrich has been predicting that the battle for the Republican presidential nomination will last “until June or July, unless Romney drops out sooner,” but the magnitude of his loss to Mitt Romney in Florida’s primary on Tuesday could force him to recalibrate.
It is possible, of course, that the contest will stretch on for several months, largely because the voting so far has allocated only 5 percent of the delegates needed to claim the nomination. On Wednesday, the battle turns to states like Nevada that award their delegates on a proportional basis, so even coming in second will have a payoff, unlike in Florida, where the winner takes all.
But Mr. Gingrich’s loss in Florida was a profound rejection of his candidacy by voters in one of the biggest, most important swing states, and pressure could mount on Mr. Gingrich to drop his insurgency bid.
Still, he said he would not back down. Framed by signs that read “46 states to go,” Mr. Gingrich told supporters at a convention center ballroom here on Tuesday night: “We are going to contest every place, and we will win.”
He did not even offer congratulations to Mr. Romney. Instead, because he won the support of conservatives, according to exit polls, Mr. Gingrich said the results showed a two-man race.
The Gingrich campaign is banking on its ability to accumulate delegates, even if in a drip, drip, drip fashion, and to demonstrate enough strength until voting takes place in a succession of Southern states starting on Super Tuesday, March 6. The South is where Mr. Gingrich’s perceived strength lies, with his big victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21 as Exhibit A.
If he can hold on until Super Tuesday, his campaign believes, Mr. Gingrich could get a jolt of energy from Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, with its 76 delegates. After that, his campaign says, he is well positioned for Texas, which will vote on April 3 and offers 155 delegates. Both states award their delegates proportionally.
“The campaign is shifting to a new phase where opportunities are not limited to a single state,” Martin Baker, Mr. Gingrich’s national political director, wrote in a statement.
“The proportional nature of the upcoming contests essentially guarantees that no candidate will secure the nomination any time soon,” he added.
But this is among the rosiest of scenarios for the roller-coaster Gingrich campaign as it confronts the challenges of multiple contests with little money, the desire of many Republicans to unite around Mr. Romney and, perhaps most of all, Mr. Gingrich’s vulnerabilities as a candidate who has lived by debates and, in Florida, died by debates.
And there lies the crux of Gingrich’s problem. There aren’t going to be as many debates going forward as there have been — there’s only one in the entire month of February, for example — and Mitt Romney proved in Florida that he’s just as formidable a debater as Gingrich’s supporters think their guy is, and more important that Newt isn’t nearly as great a debater as his press clippings claim. There’s some good news, one supposes, in the fact that Gingrich did well in the counties in northern Florida that are considered more culturally Southern than the rest of the state. This potentially bodes well for Gingrich’s chances in states like Georgia (which votes on Super Tuesday) as well as Alabama and Mississippi (which vote March 13th). Gingrich could also be competitive in states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. He’s got no real chance of pulling ahead of Romney in the delegate count, but it’s at least mathematically possible that he could still be in the hunt at the end of March and the race would be unresolved until some time in late April or May.
The problem with this scenario for Gingrich is that there are two flies in the ointment that make it unlikely he’d be able to mount the kind of campaign that would be able to pull it off.
First, if Florida proved anything itproved that there’s only one candidate in this race with a real campaign organization, and his name is Mitt Romney. Romney was on the ground in Florida long before any of the other candidates, and was thus able to dominate the absentee and early voting process. He was on the air with ads in Florida before any of the other candidates, and was thus able to control the message. You can bet they are repeating that strategy in states that don’t even have primaries for six weeks or more. The reason the other campaigns weren’t able to compete in Florida wasn’t just a question of competence, although that certainly was a part of it, but because they simply didn’t have the resources to compete. That was just one state. Now that we’re moving into the phase of the campaign where candidates will have to worry about more than one state at a time it’s hard to see how Gingrich will be able to compete effectively, especially since the lack of frequent debates means much less free media coverage.
Second, Gingrich’s entire campaign seems dependent on the assistance of the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC which is in turn funded almost entirely by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. What happens to Gingrich if Adelson suddenly decides to stop stroking those $5,000,000 checks he apparently wrote in January? Gingrich apparently raised $10 million in the last quarter and $5 million in January of this year, which is nothing to sneeze at, but Romney raised $24 million in the 4th Quarter and ended 2011 with $19 million cash-on-hand. At the same time, the Pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future had $23.6 million in the bank at the start of 2012. If Adelson pulls the rug out from under Gingrich, which he will do at some point one must think, then it’s over for Newt regardless of how many states are left to go.
The final hurdle for Newt Gingrich is Rick Santorum. Although it was pretty clear from the Florida polling that a Santorum withdrawal would benefit Romney more than Gingrich, the longer there is a conservative alternative to Gingrich in the race the less likely it is that Gingrich will be able to do much better than he did last night. In fact, Santorum seems to be making it his mission right now to campaign against Gingrich rather than Romney, but that ends up helping Romney in the end. The longer Santorum stays in the race, the less likely it will be that Gingrich can claim to be the candidate conservatives should unite behind. And that will only become more difficult when you start seeing conservatives line up behind Romney, which is likely to start happening soon.
Gingrich’s scenario is possible on some level, I suppose, but it isn’t very plausible. However long it takes, and it may not take very long at all, he will find himself pushed aside as Romney rolls on and the GOP prepares for November. At the very least, one can imagine that Gingrich did not help himself with the ungracious speech he gave last night.