Although Florida Senator and rising Republican star Marco Rubio has repeatedly refused to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary, his words this week have done great and perhaps unrepairable damage to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's chances of winning the Florida Republican primary and the Republican nomination for the presidency.
On Tuesday, Gingrich compared his contest against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to the 2010 Florida U.S. Senate race between Marco Rubio and the liberal (and eventually not Republican) former Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Rubio would have none of it, saying "Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist. Romney is a conservative, and he was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me. He came to Florida, campaigned hard for me, and made a real difference in my race."
Then on Wednesday, Rubio assailed the Gingrich campaign for running a Spanish-language radio ad aimed at Florida's politically important Cuban community, in which Gingrich called Romney "the most anti-immigration candidate." Rubio said the ad was "inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign." Gingrich promptly pulled the ad, after which Rubio offered Gingrich an olive branch in an interview with CBS: "I think Speaker Gingrich made the right decision. I've known Speaker Gingrich for a long time, I'm an admirer of him. I think he made the right choice."
But the damage was done.
In gently responding to Rubio, Gingrich expressed the skepticism that many Americans share about the idea of "self-deportation" * by illegal aliens which Romney mentioned in Monday's Republican debate in Tampa. The Speaker called the idea an "Obama-level fantasy" and said, "I've not met anyone who thinks it's in touch with reality. People aren't going to self-deport." Perhaps Mr. Gingrich was unaware that in November his own spokesman said that under Gingrich's immigration policies "it's likely the vast majority of (illegal aliens) would self-deport."
If Gingrich was unaware, he certainly isn't anymore, with a raft of websites pointing out the apparent hypocrisy, thus minimizing the damage to Romney for a statement that Hispanic political commentator Lili Gil described as leaving the debate audience "intrigued, speechless and confused."
In the 24 hours following the Rubio Rumble, Romney's betting of winning the Florida primary doubled, from about 40 percent to 80 percent, with Gingrich plummeting from almost 60 percent to 20 percent. (Ron Paul and Rick Santorum combine for under a half a percent chance of winning Florida.)
Similarly, Romney's odds of winning the nomination, which had fallen from 90 percent to just above 60 percent after the South Carolina primary, rose back to about 85 percent following Rubio's two-fold criticism of Gingrich. Gingrich's nomination odds were cut in half, from over 20 percent to under 10 percent. (As a measure of the modest desperation of GOP primary voters, the odds on a Mitch Daniels nomination briefly spiked from about zero to over 2.5 percent after the Indiana governor gave the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union speech and proved to many why he was considered to be one of the Republicans' best potential candidates.)
There's another indirect positive for Romney from Rubio's call for the campaigns to tone down the "increasingly heated rhetoric" between them.
Romney began his campaign acting as if he had already won the nomination, running much more against Barack Obama than against any of his Republican challengers. Gingrich, far behind in the pack, had no choice but to go after the Republican front-runner. Once Romney lost South Carolina, he had to personally get negative about Gingrich, no longer able to leave the dirty work to his Super-PAC. Romney showed that (unlike Gingrich) he's not adept at wearing the black hat. Meanwhile, Newt seems to have been born to be the antagonist.
To the extent that Rubio's cautionary words will force the candidates, at least in Florida, to spend more time on positive messages and on attacking Obama instead of each other, he'll be forcing Romney right back into his strength. And while offering a positive message and going after Obama isn't exactly a weakness for Gingrich, it hasn't been as productive a strategy for him as reacting indignantly toward attacks against him has been. If every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, what is Gingrich to do if Romney doesn't act forcefully against him?
Gingrich's rapid fall in betting odds is mostly, but not entirely, due to Marco Rubio. Anti-Gingrich long knives have come out in recent days, some offering a story that Gingrich's rhetorical tying himself to Ronald Reagan is unsupportable, at least in degree. Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for Reagan, was particularly aggressive: "Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong." And further, "… at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack… Reagan." That's as close to Republican political excommunication as one is likely to see, especially against someone whom most people do consider to be a conservative. For his part, Gingrich points to past recognition by Nancy Reagan and the endorsement of Michael Reagan as proof of his being an intellectual and political heir to the Gipper. But again, some damage is done.
Gingrich's post-South Carolina momentum was substantial, though not necessarily enough to take him to the nomination even had the Rubio dust-up and other attacks against the Speaker not occurred. A Quinnipiac University nationwide taken just before the recent Florida kerfuffle showed a strong gain for Gingrich, but not enough to put him ahead of Romney.
More importantly, the poll reiterates the consistent survey results that Republican voters are more interested in beating Barack Obama than in nominating the perfectly principled candidate, or the candidate with whom they most agree. And this makes Thursday's Quinnipiac release extremely important: "Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney runs even with President Barack Obama 45 - 45 percent in Florida, while the president holds a strong 50 - 39 percent lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich."
Romney's results are down from small leads he held over Obama in January and last September, but he's taken some major punches and still runs even with Obama which some would say is impressive and important. Meanwhile, not only does the poll showing Obama crushing Gingrich in the must-win state of Florida, it actually has Obama leading Gingrich by more than he leads either former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum or Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Republicans' focus on "electability," despite that term's driving many conservatives to distraction, explains Thursday's Rasmussen Reports poll results showing a huge swing among likely Florida GOP voters: In a survey taken Wednesday night, after the Rubio Rumble, Romney led Gingrich by 39 percent to 31 percent, this just four days after Gingrich stormed out to a 9 point lead over Romney following the Speaker's remarkable comeback victory in South Carolina.
The poll shows a similar reversal in Floridians' views of the candidates' electability, with Romney now 15 points ahead of Gingrich in that measure, whereas Gingrich had a 3-point lead on the same question four days ago. Rick Santorum comes in at 12 percent, with Ron Paul at the end of the line with 9 percent. Unlike what we saw in prior contests during this campaign season, a surprisingly small seven percent of those surveyed are undecided.
As tremendous as South Carolina's primary victory was for Newt Gingrich, his momentum is fading rapidly and without another unforced error from Romney (such as his amateurish response to the debate questions about his tax returns), it is not obvious that Gingrich can or will recover.
Marco Rubio may like and respect Newt Gingrich, but the young senator from Florida may have just ended the former Speaker's chances of winning the Florida primary or the Republican nomination.
*The idea of self-deportation is not the fantasy that Gingrich suggests, with compelling data, even accepted by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, showing that "the illegal population declined 13.7 percent (1.7 million) from a peak of 12.5 million in the summer of 2007 to 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2009" and that "the decline was caused by both fewer illegal immigrants coming and an increase in the number returning home." More recent data confirm the dramatic reduction of illegal immigration into the US and increase in illegal aliens, particularly from Mexico, returning home. To be sure, the primary driver is economics rather than enforcement, but it proves the basic point that with the right incentives in place illegal aliens will "self-deport."