Don’t be fooled by Mitt Romney’s victory speech in Florida, which was aimed squarely at President Obama. He didn’t mention the leading thorn-in-his-side Republican, Newt Gingrich, but he's going to make sure voters hear a lot about Gingrich as long as he stays in the race.
Sure, the bragging rights that come with a splashy, big-state victory will allow Romney to resume what had been largely a general election campaign until Gingrich's double-digit victory 10 days ago in South Carolina. And taking the fight to Obama may help Romney boost his image at a time when some polls indicate the increasingly bitter primary is taking a toll on his favorability ratings.
But even as February ushers in a new phase of the campaign, with a series of Romney-friendly contests and only one Gingrich-friendly nationally televised debate, Romney allies say he won’t let up the offensive against the former House speaker.
Hours before the Florida polls had even closed, the Romney campaign teed up a call for reporters Wednesday morning with a leading surrogate, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, one of the only states voting in February that appears within Gingrich’s reach. Romney himself will touch base in the state on Wednesday afternoon before heading to Nevada, which votes on Saturday.
The foray into Minnesota, which holds caucuses Feb. 7, is a sign that Romney is prepared to meet Gingrich’s never-surrender ethos with never-ending attacks, as necessary. An anti-Gingrich ad, nearly identical to the Florida spot that says he “cashed in’’ on the housing crisis, has already aired for a week in economically hard-hit Nevada.
“As long as there’s competition in this race, you have to continue to draw the contrasts with Speaker Gingrich and make sure that we respond when attacked,’’ said Romney adviser Kevin Madden.
Romney will have a harder time locking down the nomination than previous front-runners under new Republican Party rules under which most of the contests through April 1 allocate convention delegates proportionally. That means even the runners-up can collect delegates and make the case that the nomination is still in play. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were already campaigning in Nevada when Romney was taking his victory lap in Florida.
“The election essentially ended in Florida, but it won’t be over,’’ said veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who worked for Romney in 2008.
Just run the numbers. Romney’s win in Florida brings him to 83 delegates, just over 7 percent of the total needed to claim the nomination. While previous nomination battles were decided more by math than momentum, the new GOP rules and the impact of super PACs bankrolled by a candidate’s allies can keep a race going, even when the outcome seems predictable.
Gingrich, who has pledged to take the battle "all the way to the convention," conceded on Tuesday night at a podium labeled "46 States To Go." While acknowledging that the calendar favors Romney in February, his team argues that he will pick up delegates here and there until Super Tuesday on March 6, which will include three Southern states potentially welcoming to the former congressman, including his home state of Georgia. A win in Minnesota on Feb. 7 would allow Gingrich to dispute the notion that he’s a regional candidate.
In the meantime, Gingrich supporters hope he will stay competitive by doing what he does best: making news. Why is he spending the rest of the week in Nevada, a state with a large Mormon population that heavily leans toward Romney? Because that’s where the national media will be, along with some fundraising opportunities.
“He’s got Fox News, he’s got conservative talk radio, the Internet, social media, and countless ways to keep communicating with the voters,’’ said Gingrich strategist Joe DeSantis. “Newt has never had trouble garnering media attention.’’
Still, pressure from the Republican establishment will build on Gingrich and the other candidates to get out of the way so that Romney can focus exclusively on Obama. One of the biggest questions is whether Gingrich’s biggest super PAC benefactor, Nevada casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, will top the $10 million he’s already invested. Without the super PAC, Winning Our Future, Gingrich will have to rely on smaller online donations that can cover little television advertising. His spirited debate performances helped his once-moribund campaign become competitive again and win South Carolina, but no debates are scheduled until Feb. 22.
Expect Gingrich to ease up on his criticism of Romney’s career at Bain Capital, which has drawn considerable backlash from conservatives and continue to argue that a “Massachusetts moderate’’ -– though he’s lately demoted the former governor to “liberal’’ -– won’t be able to mount the most formidable challenge against a Democratic incumbent.
Gingrich is not the only alternative to Romney who is pressing on despite the odds. Ron Paul hasn’t won any of the four earliest contests but is mounting a slow-and-steady crusade to collect delegates. He’s been advertising in Nevada longer than anyone in the race. Santorum also began advertising in Nevada on Tuesday. He relaunched his website and is offering to shuttle reporters between Colorado and Nevada to signal that he is moving forward. But with only a little over $1 million in the bank, Santorum will be hard-pressed to mount a full-scale, national campaign.
In his speech on Tuesday night, perhaps embracing the inevitable, Romney dismissed the idea that a protracted race would benefit the president. “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us,’’ he said, “and we will win.’’