In the wake of his 12-point victory in the GOP South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich has pierced Mitt Romney's mantle of inevitability, but it's still a long way to the nomination and many senior Republicans are warning that a Gingrich candidacy would mean disaster for the party in November.
The former speaker is trying to appeal to GOP voters who want a conservative candidate from outside Washington, but insiders aren't buying it. "The problem is Newt is neither," one Republican strategist told me. Joe Scarborough -- a member of the GOP Class of '94 who served under Gingrich who now hosts Morning Joe on MSNBC -- said on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, "He's not a conservative -- he's an opportunist," charging that the self-styled man of the people is trying to use "the politics of grievance."
His rivals are taking aim too.
"He kicked butt," opponent Rick Santorum acknowledged in a CNN interview on election night. But on the same network on Sunday morning, Santorum also cautioned that Gingrich is "a very high-risk candidate." Offering himself as an alternative to Romney and Gingrich, Santorum said they represent "a choice between a moderate and an erratic conservative, someone [Gingrich] who on a lot of the major issues has been just wrong."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is supporting Romney and knows a thing or two about being a successful Republican in a Democratic state, said on Meet the Press that in the past "Gingrich has been an embarrassment to the party" and was "run out of the speakership" because of his ethics violations and questionable political strategies.
In 1997 the House voted to reprimand Gingrich and ordered him to pay a $300,000 penalty for ethics violations involving contributions and political activity. It was the first and only time in the history of the House that a sitting speaker had been disciplined for ethical violations. Two years later Gingrich resigned the speakership, becoming only the third speaker in U.S. history to do so.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who has advised Romney in the past, said on the same program that Democrats are popping the champagne corks over a potential Gingrich candidacy. "Newt Gingrich could not carry a swing state in the general election if it was made of feathers," Murphy quipped.
The race now moves to Florida, a much larger and more diverse state, where money and organization -- which Romney has -- will be a significant factor.
Romney will have to throw it all down in this winner-take-all state. Florida could make or break him. The most recent Gallup tracking poll has Romney up by five points over Gingrich, a narrow lead that could evaporate by the Jan. 31 election. If Romney wins Florida, Gingrich could continue in future primaries but will be much less of a threat. But if Gingrich prevails in the Sunshine State, Romney will be seriously wounded and there would be pressure among Republicans to find an alternative -- "a white-knight candidate" -- according to one GOP strategist.
"I'm pretty convinced Newt can't be the nominee even if he wins the most delegates and goes to the floor in Tampa [at the GOP convention]," one GOP strategist told me. Talk of a brokered convention is now circulating. One potential alternative could be Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who chose not to run for president this year and who will be giving the GOP response to the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday.
To win in the Sunshine State, Romney will have to step up his debate performances. Gingrich has excelled in the debates, appealing to the conservative GOP base with harsh attacks on President Obama and the media. CNN exit polling showed that more than half of South Carolina voters made up their minds in the last few days before the vote, and almost 90 percent of them said the debates were a significant factor in their decision. Gingrich's attack on CNN's John King at the Thursday night debate for asking a question about charges by his ex-wife Marianne that he wanted an "open marriage" was like crack cocaine to conservatives.
There will be two Florida debates this week, including one Monday night at the University of South Florida that will air on NBC, the first primetime major-network broadcast of a GOP debate in this election cycle.
In Florida, only registered Republicans can vote in the primary, unlike the first three contests, in which independents could participate. Almost half of the ballots in New Hampshire and a quarter of those in South Carolina were cast by independent voters. Absentee ballots have been mailed and early in-person voting began Saturday in Florida. According to The Miami Herald, almost half a million absentee ballots have been requested and about 200,000 have already been returned. More than four million Republicans are registered to vote in Florida.
Romney campaign officials have signaled the gloves are off after Gingrich's behavior in South Carolina, focusing on Romney's income and business experience. "Romney will take it to Gingrich in the debates. This race now gets nasty," one of them told me.
Romney announced on Fox News Sunday that he will release his 2010 tax return on Tuesday, which should blunt some criticism. People already know he's rich (worth more than $200 million), that he paid about 15 percent in taxes because most of his income is from investments, and that he has accounts in the Cayman Islands, long associated with trying to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
But that doesn't mean Gingrich won't try to continue to use this against Romney, or that it wouldn't be a liability in the general election. CNN analyst and former presidential adviser David Gergen described Gingrich as "a street fighter that carries a switch blade" and wondered if the gentlemanly, button-down Romney has it in his DNA to go after Gingrich.
Conservative grassroots primary voters have never embraced Romney or his country-club Republican style, and they love that Gingrich is both pugnacious and outrageous. They can't stand Barack Obama and his policies and eat it up when the former speaker claims the president favors a European socialist-style agenda or labels him "the food-stamp president."
In his election night speech, Gingrich decried the "growing antireligious bigotry of our elites" and talked about prayer in schools as if it is one of the burning issues of our time. "The elites in New York and Washington," Gingrich claims, "want to force us to quit being American." And in an equally nonsensical claim, Gingrich said on Meet the Press that the "national establishment" wants to tell people "what they're allowed to think, what they're allowed to say."
It's no wonder Gingrich received the semi-endorsement of Sarah Palin.
But Gingrich, who had $3 million in income in 2010, was paid more than $1 million from mortgage lender Freddie Mac and had a $500,000 revolving charge at Tiffany's, is also implausibly trying to style himself as the populist in the race and is borrowing part of the Occupy Wall Street message, referring to the "big boys on Wall Street" in his South Carolina speech. He has continually referred to Romney as "the establishment candidate."
The more people look at Gingrich, "the less attractive he's going to be," warned Santorum. Although Romney didn't mention Gingrich's name in his South Carolina election-night speech, he said on Fox News Sunday that he doesn't think the American people want "a person who spent 40 years in Washington as a congressman and a lobbyist." He also assailed Gingrich's "character" "sobriety" and "steadiness."
Expect Romney and his supporters to start going after Gingrich's record as speaker and his ethics violations in a big way in Florida. "I don't see how this win changes the basic argument that Newt is undisciplined, not likable, and not capable of managing anything. Of all the members of Congress he served with, almost none are willing to support him," a Republican official told me. Gingrich's unfavorable national ratings also far exceed the rest of the remaining GOP field -- as well as those of Obama.
Whatever happens in Florida, this fight could be a lot like the 2008 Democratic primary battle, going all the way to June. After Florida come the February contests in Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri -- all caucus states where Rep. Ron Paul can also be expected to campaign. Arizona and Michigan will vote on Feb. 28. Romney carried both Nevada and Michigan in his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid. Super Tuesday on March 6 features voting in 10 states, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.
"I'm the person who's tough enough to take every single hit and keep coming," Gingrich vowed, adding, "The last thing Republicans want to do is nominate someone who collapses in September."
That is undoubtedly what most Republicans are thinking right now.