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.