Mitt Romney got his campaign for the Republican nominations back on track with a big win in the Florida primary last night. With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney won with 46 percent of the vote, fourteen points ahead of Newt Gingrich, who finished with 32 percent of the vote. Rick Santorum finished in third and Ron Paul finished fourth. Neither candidate had campaigned in Florida in recent days.
Immediately following the South Carolina primary, it seemed like Gingrich had the momentum that he needed to defeat Romney in Florida, despite all of the advantages Romney had due to his financial resources. However, it was Gingrich’s campaign that faltered, mainly due to his decision to make the campaign about petty personal attacks, not issues.
Gingrich was the one who could control the subject matter of the campaign in Florida. After his big South Carolina win, Romney was on defense, and instead of using a number of issues to explain to voters why Romney is a Massachusetts moderate, Gingrich instead chose to make the campaign about Romney’s tax returns, blind trusts, off shore accounts, and highlighting a Romney veto that denied paying for Kosher foods for seniors in nursing homes.
Not only was Romney ready to respond to those allegations, he was ready to get down in the mud with Gingrich in the two debates. Romney was far from flawless in the debates, but he out-maneuvered Gingrich at every turn. Making matters worse for Gingrich is that he picked a fight with a candidate who basically had unlimited resources. All told, Romney and his super PAC out-spent Gingrich $15 million to $5 million. Gingrich basically picked a fight he could never win.
By the middle of last week, it became clear that Romney had gotten Gingrich off of his message. While the Gingrich super PAC was running ads claiming that a Romney run company was guilty of Medicare fraud, candidate Gingrich spent days defending his claim to the Reagan legacy. Gingrich never seized on the Medicare argument because he lacked message discipline. While also a negative attack, it was one that might have hurt Romney in Florida given the number of retirees in the state.
Looking ahead, February should be friendly for Romney. Four years ago, he won the Nevada caucuses going away. The two big contests at the end of the month, Arizona and Michigan, are states that he should do well in as he grew up in Michigan and won the state four years ago, and he has been endorsed by Arizona Senator John McCain.
The other contests like Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine could present problems, but they would be nothing to knock him off track. Plus Romney has plenty of staff and resources to compete in each of them. If February is a problem for anyone, it’s Gingrich.
Gingrich told his supporters last night that the race is between him and Romney. That’s an argument that he has been making for weeks now, but one that only sets him up to fail. Gingrich needs to make it to Super Tuesday on March 6th, a day where he could do very well. However, to get there, he needs to find a win or two along the way. If Paul or Santorum can find wins, which is not out of the question, and Gingrich can’t, he’s got a real problem.
An alternative option would be for Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum to divide and conquer in the month of February. Instead of trying to campaign everywhere, the three non-Romney candidates could focus on states where they each have the best shot of winning. Paul is already doing this, but by Gingrich proclaiming that it’s him versus Romney, he’s basically committing himself to campaign in states that are both costly and stacked against him.
Romney is well positioned after winning Florida. As the clear frontrunner, he will do well wherever his name on the ballot. It’s the job of the other candidates to try and trip him up, but Gingrich seems more interested in continuing to attack Romney than actually finding a state in which he can beat Romney.
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