ORLANDO, Florida -- "We are going to win a decisive victory tomorrow with your help," Newt Gingrich declared at a rally here on Monday night, after repeating the populist stump speech that Stacy McCain observed a few hours earlier in Fort Myers.
That didn't happen, of course. Yesterday Mitt Romney was declared the winner in Florida as soon as all of the polls had closed. Newt's "decisive victory" was a decisive loss, as everyone knew that it would be. (Surely, even Newt himself wasn't delusional enough to think he'd win, merely disingenuous enough to say so.) But when he took the stage before a relatively small crowd at his election night party, Gingrich was defiant: "We are going to contest everyplace and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee."
AFTER HIS VICTORY IN SOUTH CAROLINA, Gingrich was leading in the Florida polls by as much as nine points. He won in South Carolina largely because voters were impressed with his performance in debates. Live by the debate, die by the debate: Newt's lackluster performance in the two debates last week quickly drove his poll numbers south. Just as important: Advertising, the vast majority of it negative. Romney's performance in the debates was effective in a way that observers outside of Florida may have missed: He was able to reinforce the message of the attacks in his ubiquitous ads. (Romney and his supporters outspent Gingrich and his supporters by a ratio of four to one.)
Newt's sinking polls seemed to send his campaign spiraling out of control. The Romney strategy of sending surrogates to talk to the press at Gingrich events -- "let's go rush the quarterback," in the words of Romney advisor David Kochel -- goaded the Gingrich campaign into confrontations that reinforced exactly the narrative of an erratic, sinking Gingrich campaign that the Romney campaign wanted. A weird and unnecessary fight with the traveling press didn't help matters.
By the end of the campaign, the Gingrich campaign was swinging wildly and desperately, hurling spurious accusations about Romney taking kosher food away from Holocaust survivors.
Can Gingrich recover, as he insists he will? This has been a volatile race, and there may still be surprises ahead. But Romney has a lot going for him. Gingrich campaign press secretary R.C. Hammond has been tamping down expectations for upcoming contests, telling CNN that Nevada, which holds caucuses on Saturday, is the "toughest one" for them to compete in. He adds that they "are not putting Michigan first" among states they can compete in; Michigan's primary is on February 28. This makes sense; Romney won both states in 2008. (A fairly large percentage of Mormons -- generally inclined to vote for Romney, their coreligionist -- participate in Nevada, and older voters in Michigan still have fond memories of Romney's father, Governor George Romney.) But it underscores the hard terrain ahead; it is not clear how Newt can build momentum as the race progresses.
Gingrich might be able to effect a shift in the narrative of the campaign with a strong debate performance, but the next debate isn't scheduled until February 22, after caucuses in Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota, plus a non-binding primary in Missouri where Gingrich won't be on the ballot (all his campaign had to do was submit a form and pay a filing fee, but they didn't do it). Ron Paul has built organizations robust enough to make a strong showing in the caucus states, as has Romney. If Gingrich can't register a win, it will be much harder to raise money, and thus harder to sustain his campaign.
Over the weekend, Gingrich suggested that if Rick Santorum drops out of the race, he can win by consolidating the anti-Romney vote. Some polls of upcoming states seem to support this theory, but tonight Romney got more votes than Gingrich and Santorum combined, suggesting that even without Santorum in the race (Paul is guaranteed to stay in), Gingrich can still lose to Romney. And unless there's big surprise in the coming weeks, that's most likely what will happen.
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