TAMPA, Fla. - Did South Carolina decide the Republican presidential nominee, as it has since 1980, or did it engage in a primal scream that slows but does not derail Mitt Romney's momentum? Florida won't settle that question entirely, but its Jan. 31 primary will say more than Gingrich would like to admit.
In the next phase of his campaign, look for Romney to release his tax returns, participate in fewer debates, try to tell his own story with more passion, and, with the help of his super PAC allies, go after Gingrich more directly.
It's all part of a recovery plan. Romney saw a double-digit lead in South Carolina collapse in less than a week and he saw his national numbers decline against Gingrich among registered and leaning Republican voters. He heads here now bitten by fumbling debate performances, a mangled message on his personal tax returns and the most important question his campaign has long confronted but never been able to answer: What does Romney do if he can't unite economic, social and national security conservatives?
Gingrich united all three in South Carolina and his double-digit victory there will go down in party lore as one of the historic snap-back moments for the conservative movement. It's not as if conservatives didn't have a voice in Iowa or New Hampshire. They did. But they came together in bigger numbers and with a greater sense of fulmination and rage at what they perceive is the establishment Republican tendency to dismiss or delegitimize conservatives in the nominating process. This grievance has burned with varying degrees of intensity in every nominating contest since 1964 and if it were ever to find its full expression, South Carolina would be the place.
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The Gingrich appeal in South Carolina can translate in northern and rural Florida but may find voters less receptive in the central Interstate Four corridor and more cosmopolitan and Latino southern Florida. Money won't determine the outcome entirely, but it will play a substantial role. South Carolina proves money isn't determinative. Romney spent twice as much Gingrich and lost by double-digits. And Gingrich will reap huge financial gains from South Carolina. Top Republicans believe Gingrich could raise as much as $10 million in the next two weeks. Gingrich appealed for money in his closing remarks, adding tartly "We don't have the kind of money that at least one candidate has."
Before that money comes in, Gingrich has to live off the airwaves, using the "elite" media to carry his message. Gingrich was booked on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation and CNN's State of the Union. Condemning the "elite" media and using it simultaneously as a lifeline until he can raise more campaign cash is a tactic that might make some candidates blush. Not Gingrich. That bristling self-confidence proved to be an asset in South Carolina.
It remains a defining part of his persona and contributes to his high negative ratings on the likability question (56 percent unfavorable to 27 percent in this week's Fox News poll) and his lagging support among women (he runs 18 points behind President Obama in this week's CNN/Time poll). Until these attitudes about Gingrich change, his electability will remain a deep and abiding concern among top-tier Republicans. Part of that anxiety was visible in the days before South Carolina voted when swing-state Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia backed Romney.
Romney has been spending money in Florida for three weeks, buying up ad time in every major media market. It requires $1.5 million to hit the saturation point of 1,000 gross ratings points in the top Florida media markets and Romney has it and has set a goal of hitting that mark each week between now and the Jan. 31 primary. Romney's campaign, overseen in the Sunshine state by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former member of the U.S. House, also has heavily organized early voting. By primary day, Romney strategists believe they will have upwards of 500,000 early votes already in the bag.
Romney will also remind Florida Republicans -- independents cannot vote in the primary -- about Gingrich's $1.6 million in consultancy payments from the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac That issue damaged Gingrich in Iowa and nationally before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and could cut deeply in a state that's suffered through a deep foreclosure crisis. In fact, three hours after the polls closed in South Carolina, the pro-Romney super PAC Restore our Future was airing ads in Tampa knocking Gingrich on his association with Freddie Mac, his House reprimand over an ethics violation 15 years ago and his ties with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The Romney camp will also take a very hard look at future debates. It reluctantly agreed to Monday's National Journal/NBC/Tampa Bay Times debate and the CNN debate on Thursday. No final decisions have been made, but the strong impression given by Romney advisers is after these two debates, Romney will no longer give his rivals the free-media benefits of endless debate platforms and seek to defeat them the old fashioned way -- with money and organization.
Romney stepped up his rhetoric against Gingrich in his concession speech Saturday night. “Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare and attacked the free enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world," he said. "We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise."
Still, Romney advisers know they can only vanquish Gingrich by doing more to quiet concerns raised by his shaky answers on personal wealth and his income tax history. The campaign delayed a release of tax documents to make sure it would not happen in waves and that whatever publicity surrounding it could be contained in a one-day news cycle. That was a strategy built around the long game. It cost them precious ground and voter credibility in South Carolina. Those close to the campaign say the move is afoot to get the documents and the narrative ready as soon as possible -- and for more years than the one Gingrich has released. In essence, in a new state of Florida the Romney team wants to argue it said more and released more than Gingrich and Santorum (who says his forms will come out in months) and Paul (who won't release them at all). Until that happens, the questions will persist.
And on this issue, on questions about Romney's stewardship of the private equity firm Bain Capital, a disturbing pattern has begun to emerge -- Romney's surrogates answer questions more sharply and with more evident passion than Romney. That can and does work on arcane policy questions. It does not work on matters at the heart of a candidate's own story. Team Romney knows that was never more visibly on display than in South Carolina.
As the candidates head to Florida, Romney and his team know they have to learn from defeat and adapt quickly even as they use their money and organization. Florida is all about Romney and Gingrich. Gingrich has the momentum and all that comes with it - money, curiosity, volunteers and scrutiny. The first three are blessings. The last could be a curse - it has been before. Romney arrives wounded and humbled. His campaign team is cranky and Romney will have to steady the ship and find a stronger voice about his life story, his financial history and his philosophical core.
These have been the weaknesses at the heart of the Romney campaign from the start. That South Carolina exposed them so gruesomely might, in the end, be just what Romney needed. If not, South Carolina did more than let loose a primal scream.