PLANTATION, Fla. -- With polls showing Mitt Romney on track for a convincing victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary in this state, the one silver lining for Newt Gingrich may be the acceleration of a sorting-out process that is driving more prominent conservatives toward the former House speaker as a parade of establishment GOP leaders rally around Romney.
The most powerful dynamic in Florida over the past week has been the Romney campaign’s success at blunting the momentum from Gingrich's South Carolina win by seeding a gardenful of personal and political doubts about him. But the sheer ferocity (and success) of that assault, delivered in many cases by pillars of the GOP establishment like former presidential nominees John McCain and Bob Dole, has prompted leading conservative figures like Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, and talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to deepen their identification with Gingrich in response.
In that way, the Florida result could both re-establish Romney as the favorite to win the nomination -- and potentially strengthen Gingrich’s ability to contest him as the calendar turns toward states with a more conservative Republican electorate than Florida. “It has become much more explicit that Romney is an establishment, status-quo-type candidate,” said long-term conservative activist Jeffrey Bell, policy director at the American Principles Project. “Conservatives are being driven toward Gingrich’s camp to keep the conversation going.”
In the near-term, there’s no question Florida appears ready to restore Romney as the race’s clear front-runner. Romney heads into the final day here with polls showing him regaining a double-digit lead over Gingrich, who had surged ahead immediately after his South Carolina victory. In an NBC/Marist Institute survey released Sunday, Romney’s lead over Gingrich swelled to 15 percentage points, 42 percent to 27 percent.
Romney regained his advantage in Florida with a huge advantage in advertising spending, his own strong debate performances, and searing attacks on the former speaker from prominent Republican leaders like McCain and Dole, the party’s presidential nominees in 2008 and 1996 respectively. Gingrich himself seemed dazed by the onslaught, turning in two uncharacteristically unsteady debate performances, and seeming tired in several lugubrious campaign appearances. Gingrich’s pre-primary week in Florida was about as dismal as Romney’s in South Carolina.
The rapid reversal of fortune has allowed Romney to re-establish big leads in Florida among the groups that have been the pillars of his coalition, several of which had wavered in South Carolina. According to the NBC/Marist Institute poll, Romney holds wide advantages over Gingrich among better educated and more affluent voters, those who consider themselves moderate and those who don’t identify with the tea party or as evangelical Christians. The survey also showed Romney cutting into some groups that bolstered Gingrich in South Carolina, including evangelical Christians who provided Romney a slim lead in the poll while splitting almost three-ways between him, Gingrich and Rick Santorum. As important, like other polls, the survey showed Romney regaining the advantage he had surrendered in South Carolina as the candidate favored by those most focused on electability against President Obama.
“There is one thing and one thing only that brings all Republicans together and that is the desire to defeat Barack Obama,” said one senior Romney adviser who asked not to be identified while discussing internal campaign strategy. “If anything has been done this week really effectively, by the campaign and the candidate, is to really put into question the ability of Newt Gingrich to conduct a nine-month campaign against the president. Much of that was based on Gingrich’s ability to beat him in a debate and he had two very bad debates.”
Some GOP observers say the damage the Romney forces have done to Gingrich’s image this week could make it extremely difficult for him to recover enough to again be a serious threat to win the nomination. “I think that all of the doubts that were raised in Iowa have been reinforced in Florida and having all the conservative voices out there saying Gingrich is not the one has done some real lasting damage,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who had supported Jon Huntsman in the race. “The other thing that happened this week is the Romney campaign has gotten a wake-up call that Newt does not go quietly….what they have learned is you never take the foot off the gas until it’s actually finished.”
For Romney, the undeniable success of this campaign, though, has come with a price. It has inspired a series of leading conservatives to support Gingrich against the assault. Rush Limbaugh last Thursday extensively defended Gingrich against the Romney camp’s charge that he was insufficiently loyal to Ronald Reagan. Mark Levin, another prominent talk show host, delivered a similar message on his show on the same day. “What was Mitt Romney doing when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House fighting Democrats?” Levin said. “He was running against Ted Kennedy as a self-identified progressive.”