How Romney stole Gingrich's voice in Florida.
Gingrich said people would abandon Romney once they learned the truth about his level of dishonesty. Romney said he wasn't running an advertisement that it turned out he was. Romney said he voted for Republicans whenever they were on the ballot but cast a ballot for Paul Tsongas in 1992. He said Romney had lied about money being in a blind trust. He also rattled off various inaccurate claims Romney had made about his own record. Gingrich seemed to believe that Romney would see his support collapse when people learned the facts. It was a quaint notion, surprising from a seasoned politician like Gingrich who has profited by knowing exactly how attacks work. It is a nearly iron-clad rule of politics that bending the truth works. Gingrich does it all the time in his attacks on Barack Obama. Also, charges can't go unanswered. That was a lesson Gingrich was supposed to have learned in Iowa, where his campaign never got off the ground in part because he did not answer Romney's attacks.
Gingrich wears a replica of George Washington's battle flag on his lapel, so it's not surprising that he's vowing to extend the nomination fight. Even if Romney wins Florida, Gingrich’s team argues, only 10 percent of the delegates will have been apportioned. Gingrich can hang on and rack up votes on Super Tuesday in March, which includes primaries in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia.
But there are significant challenges to this strategy. If Gingrich loses Florida, he loses momentum. Momentum has brought in money. He can rely on big donors to fund his super PAC, but he won't be able to fund the organization that will be required in future states. There are no more debates for a month. Gingrich plummeted in the polls during the debate-free period around the Iowa caucuses. He'll have to find some way to crack into the conversation. The difficulty of that task will encourage him to get even more negative, a strategy that hasn't been effective for him.
Romney, by contrast, will have the momentum going into Michigan and Nevada, two states where he has ties and strong organizations. As Romney wins and Gingrich escalates his attacks, calls will come in to wind up the battle for fear of damaging the party. A couple of Republican strategists I've talked to have already pointed to the bickering between the two and argued that the only person it helps is Barack Obama. Independents look at the two men sniping over who is the greater insider and don't see either talking about the issues that matter to them.
By the end of the day Monday, the tone and feel of the race seemed to favor Romney. Gingrich, who is chronically tardy, was more than an hour-and-a-half late to his midday event in Tampa. Organizers had scheduled the event in an airplane hangar, clearly hoping to draw far more than the 150 or so who turned out. Gingrich was hitting back hard, calling Romney a "liberal" (he's moved on from "Massachusetts moderate") and railing about those who wants to stop his candidacy: "I am real change, and that's why the establishment in both parties is really terrified."
Romney was greeted by thousands at his events and everyone seemed in a good mood. "Speaker Gingrich, he's not feeling very excited these days," he said in Dunedin, Fla., to which the audience collectively said, "Awwwww." Romney smiled and said: "I know, it's sad."