Last Saturday’s South Carolina primary sent the Republican presidential nominating contest into strange and possibly uncharted territory. Front-runner and “Establishment” favorite, Mitt Romney, turned in a dismal performance, while twice-left-for-dead Newt Gingrich not only swept the state but quickly seized the lead in both national GOP polls and in Florida, where voters go to the polls on January 31.
Newt’s Florida “bump” was especially impressive, since the Sunshine State was supposedly Romney’s “firewall” that would maintain his momentum even if disaster struck in South Carolina. Moreover, Gingrich took the lead there even though Romney had enjoyed virtually uncontested control of the airwaves, having spent (via his own campaign and his Super-PAC) over $5 million in ads, mostly attacking the former Speaker on his Freddie Mac “historian” gig. Thanks to another $5 million check from Sheldon Adelson’s family, Newt’s fighting back with his Super-PAC recently buying $6 million in Florida air time.
Gingrich’s ace-in-the-hole throughout the campaign, namely his ability to rally conservatives to his side by attacking the news media, didn’t work as well for him in the first of two pre-primary debates in Tampa on January 23. Instead, Newt was largely on the defensive against attacks from Romney. The debate, however, ended more or less as a draw, with Mitt once again struggling over questions about his tax returns. For this reason, the final debate in Jacksonville tomorrow could prove decisive.
In terms of the second-tier candidates, Ron Paul is not seriously contesting Florida, preferring to focus on upcoming caucus states. But one real imponderable here is the trajectory of the struggling campaign of Rick Santorum; his collapse or withdrawal could give a crucial boost to Gingrich, given the strong evidence that Newt is his supporters’ overwhelming second choice. That being said, it remains unclear how much Gingrich’s South Carolina win was attributable to the late withdrawal of and endorsement from Rick Perry, since the Texan’s support-levels there were low and vanishing. Regardless, there are generally strong signs in national polling that Gingrich has now become the Tea Party’s adopted candidate, with Romney depending to a dangerous degree on self-identified moderates.
One fascinating aspect of the contest at present is the vast gulf between elite and rank-and-file views about the two leading candidates’ “electability.” The prevailing elite view is that Gingrich would likely be a disastrous general-election candidate, as is already suggested in general election polls, particularly given the low odds that he could continue to avoid scrutiny of his marital and financial background in the long slog to November. Contrary to such skepticism, however, exit polls in South Carolina showed Newt soundly defeating Mitt among voters most concerned about “electability”. It seems Gingrich’s claim that he can end-run media “protection” for the incumbent in debates clearly sounds compelling to a lot of conservatives who don’t spend much time perusing polls and probably don’t trust them anyway.
Of course, if Romney manages to win in Florida, the road ahead will likely become much easier for him. With a slew of caucuses that will reward his financial and Establishment advantages, followed by a February 28 primary in his native state of Michigan, Mitt would likely enter Super Tuesday (March 6) poised for victory. Gingrich’s failure to get on the ballot in Virginia would merely be icing on the cake.
But a Romney loss in Florida could cause a real crisis of confidence in him in the very Establishment circles he is counting on. There are already some signs of panic, with renewed talk (not terribly realistic, given the rapid passage of filing deadlines for primaries) of last-minute candidacies by an assortment of pols who chose not to run earlier in the cycle. Indeed, last night’s credible SOTU response by Gov. Mitch Daniels is certain to encourage some Republican pundits to cast goo-goo eyes in his direction.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been greatly encouraged by the rude interruption of Romney’s cakewalk to the nomination; by the weaknesses in his background Gingrich has exposed; and of course, by the tantalizing prospect that Republicans might actually nominate the man who became a useful punching bag for Bill Clinton when they shared power in the 1990s. Obama’s combative SOTU address indicated the incumbent has fully shifted into re-election mode. And his slowly improving approval ratings, along with fragile but encouraging economic news, provide a decent foundation for a strong campaign against an opposition party that continues to surprise virtually everyone including itself, however unpleasantly.
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