Good News and Bad News for Gingrich in Florida

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For Gingrich, finding an argument that can restore the populist coalition he assembled in South Carolina will become much more urgent after Florida.

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PLANTATION, Fla. -- With polls showing Mitt Romney on track for a convincing victory in Tuesday's Republican primary in this state, the one silver lining for Newt Gingrich may be the acceleration of a sorting-out process that is driving more prominent conservatives toward the former House speaker as a parade of establishment GOP leaders rally around Romney.

The most powerful dynamic in Florida over the past week has been the Romney campaign's success at blunting the momentum from Gingrich's South Carolina win by seeding a gardenful of personal and political doubts about him. But the sheer ferocity (and success) of that assault, delivered in many cases by pillars of the GOP establishment like former presidential nominees John McCain and Bob Dole, has prompted leading conservative figures like Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, and talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to deepen their identification with Gingrich in response.

In that way, the Florida result could both re-establish Romney as the favorite to win the nomination -- and potentially strengthen Gingrich's ability to contest him as the calendar turns toward states with a more conservative Republican electorate than Florida. "It has become much more explicit that Romney is an establishment, status-quo-type candidate," said long-term conservative activist Jeffrey Bell, policy director at the American Principles Project. "Conservatives are being driven toward Gingrich's camp to keep the conversation going."

In the near-term, there's no question Florida appears ready to restore Romney as the race's clear front-runner. Romney heads into the final day here with polls showing him regaining a double-digit lead over Gingrich, who had surged ahead immediately after his South Carolina victory. In an NBC/Marist Institute survey released Sunday, Romney's lead over Gingrich swelled to 15 percentage points, 42 percent to 27 percent.

Romney regained his advantage in Florida with a huge advantage in advertising spending, his own strong debate performances, and searing attacks on the former speaker from prominent Republican leaders like McCain and Dole, the party's presidential nominees in 2008 and 1996 respectively. Gingrich himself seemed dazed by the onslaught, turning in two uncharacteristically unsteady debate performances, and seeming tired in several lugubrious campaign appearances. Gingrich's pre-primary week in Florida was about as dismal as Romney's in South Carolina.

The rapid reversal of fortune has allowed Romney to re-establish big leads in Florida among the groups that have been the pillars of his coalition, several of which had wavered in South Carolina. According to the NBC/Marist Institute poll, Romney holds wide advantages over Gingrich among better educated and more affluent voters, those who consider themselves moderate and those who don't identify with the tea party or as evangelical Christians. The survey also showed Romney cutting into some groups that bolstered Gingrich in South Carolina, including evangelical Christians who provided Romney a slim lead in the poll while splitting almost three-ways between him, Gingrich and Rick Santorum. As important, like other polls, the survey showed Romney regaining the advantage he had surrendered in South Carolina as the candidate favored by those most focused on electability against President Obama.

"There is one thing and one thing only that brings all Republicans together and that is the desire to defeat Barack Obama," said one senior Romney adviser who asked not to be identified while discussing internal campaign strategy. "If anything has been done this week really effectively, by the campaign and the candidate, is to really put into question the ability of Newt Gingrich to conduct a nine-month campaign against the president. Much of that was based on Gingrich's ability to beat him in a debate and he had two very bad debates."

Some GOP observers say the damage the Romney forces have done to Gingrich's image this week could make it extremely difficult for him to recover enough to again be a serious threat to win the nomination. "I think that all of the doubts that were raised in Iowa have been reinforced in Florida and having all the conservative voices out there saying Gingrich is not the one has done some real lasting damage," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who had supported Jon Huntsman in the race. "The other thing that happened this week is the Romney campaign has gotten a wake-up call that Newt does not go quietly....what they have learned is you never take the foot off the gas until it's actually finished."

For Romney, the undeniable success of this campaign, though, has come with a price. It has inspired a series of leading conservatives to support Gingrich against the assault. Rush Limbaugh last Thursday extensively defended Gingrich against the Romney camp's charge that he was insufficiently loyal to Ronald Reagan. Mark Levin, another prominent talk show host, delivered a similar message on his show on the same day. "What was Mitt Romney doing when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House fighting Democrats?" Levin said. "He was running against Ted Kennedy as a self-identified progressive."

Most dramatically, Sarah Palin, who had earlier said that she would have voted for Gingrich in South Carolina, deepened her identification with him through a lengthy post on her Facebook page. "The Republican establishment which fought Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and which continues to fight the grassroots Tea Party movement today has adopted the tactics of the left in using the media and the politics of personal destruction to attack an opponent,"she wrote. "What we saw with this ridiculous opposition dump on Newt was nothing short of Stalin-esque rewriting of history." Then, on Friday night, Herman Cain, a tea party favorite during his own star-crossed presidential campaign, completed the cycle by endorsing Gingrich at a Florida event.

None of this seems likely to much change the trajectory in Florida. But with figures like Dole and McCain rallying to Romney, and Palin, Cain, and Limbaugh joining Texas Gov. Rick Perry in bolstering Gingrich, the race seems to be hardening into a contest between what can alternately be viewed as the party's upscale managerial wing, and its downscale populist contingent, or its establishment and grassroots.

Despite the prospect of a substantial setback in Florida, that solidifying alignment cheers conservatives dubious of Romney like Erick Erickson, editor of the influential blog Redstate.com.

"I think Romney is being boxed in as the establishment candidate," Erickson said. "I think those endorsements are limiting for Romney overall, because you have a a tea party that has largely sat out between Romney and Gingrich -- but when they see all the [establishment] people coming out for Romney, who they blame for the problems in the first place....it pushes them toward Gingrich. He's not a perfect vehicle at all for any of them, but they really don't like Romney."

In Florida, these dynamics probably won't benefit Gingrich much because the Republican electorate here is more upscale, less conservative, and less evangelical than in many states; that, plus the state's huge cost of campaigning, always made it difficult terrain for the Gingrich. But if the ideological sorting out that advanced this week continues, it could provide Gingrich an opportunity to recover in states that tilt toward the populist wing of the party that favors him.

That list revolves heavily around southern and Heartland states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio and Tennessee, where non-college voters, or evangelicals, or both, comprise a majority of the GOP primary electorate. "I feel quite confident that no one has repealed the fundamental laws of politics that money and organization matter a lot, and Romney has a lot more of those," said Ayres. "But the fact that Newt has an ideological base that resents many in the party establishment does give him legs that another similarly situated candidate might not have."

In addition to the financial and organizational deficit Gingrich faces, three other big hurdles loom over his hope of mobilizing a conservative coalition against Romney. One is that over the next month, few states hold contests-and those that do, headlined by Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, favor Romney (Though the large non-college population in each of the latter could provide Gingrich with some opportunities, the Mormon presence in Arizona and Romney's home-town links in Michigan are each big obstacles). That means February could present Gingrich with a double-whammy: less attention, which always hurts the more lightly-funded candidate, and the prospect of a long drought between victories, which could erode his credibility.

"The problem for Gingrich is Romney comes out of Florida with a big lead and then goes into Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, all good places for him," said Erickson.

Gingrich's second problem is fractionation on the right; Rick Santorum, who turned in another strong debate performance Thursday night, also continues to poll better with groups favorable to Gingrich (like evangelical Christians and strong tea-party supporters) than those who tilt toward Romney. That's helping Romney to consolidate the center behind him more than any single candidate is consolidating the right against him (though the NBC/Marist survey found Santorum's supporters would scatter about equally to Romney and Gingrich if he left the race.)

Both Bell and Craig Shirley, a long-time conservative public relations consultant sympathetic to Gingrich, see a final challenge for the former speaker: finding a forward-looking issue that galvanizes conservatives and crystallizes his case against Romney. So far, both men note, Gingrich has centered his case on a backward-looking argument about Romney's record, which is not an easy argument for the former speaker to win because his own history contains plenty of transgressions from conservative doctrine. Both men argue it's urgent for Gingrich to find a more substantive issue disagreement to fuel his campaign.

Shirley, who has written a biography of Reagan and is writing one of Gingrich, notes that Reagan used exactly that formula by highlighting his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty to revive his flagging primary challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976. Bell, who is working with several of the campaigns to promote conservative causes like the gold standard, agrees. "Gingrich has a challenge to have a more forward-looking platform, so he isn't constantly having arguments about his history and Romney's history," he said. "He has created the mood of a candidate of change, but I don't think he has fleshed out what that means."

For Gingrich, finding an argument that can restore the populist coalition he assembled in South Carolina will become much more urgent if Florida, as it seems poised to do, once again scrambles the deck tomorrow in the most volatile GOP race in decades.

Image: Matt Rourke / AP

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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