Mitt Romney was so chipper on the eve of Florida’s Republican primary that instead of reciting a few verses of “America the Beautiful” as he frequently does on the stump, he let down his guard and sang.
The presidential candidate was contemplating his first big-state win and a favorable forecast for February, with contests scheduled in a number of friendly states and three weeks without any nationally televised debates in which he might be upstaged. Warbling, albeit off-key, was in order.
But if Newt Gingrich makes good on his vow to take the battle for the nomination “all the way” to the convention, Romney may arrive in Tampa with a bad case of laryngitis. Gingrich’s defiant speech in Florida after a 14-point rout ended in a battle cry: “46 states to go!” That is, if you don’t count Virginia, a key showdown state where he failed to qualify for the ballot. The omission reinforced the sense of recklessness coursing through Gingrich’s campaign, even as Romney is seeking to impose order on the most unruly primary contest in decades.
Although the epic battle between Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama ultimately molded Obama into a stronger—and triumphant—candidate in the 2008 general election, it’s not clear that a protracted Republican race will benefit Romney, the party’s likely nominee. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who came in third and fourth, respectively, in Florida, are also pressing forward despite long odds. Neither has much to lose.
No wonder Romney addressed the question of an interminable primary slog straight away in his Florida victory speech on Tuesday night in Tampa, the city that will host the GOP convention in late August. “A competitive primary does not divide us,” he said. “It prepares us.”
Still, some party operatives are worried that the bombastic former House speaker will fall prey to his worst impulses to keep himself in the headlines until the March 6 Super Tuesday contests, which feature three battlefields on his Southern turf—Oklahoma, Tennessee, and his home state of Georgia. Some polls suggest that the noxious primary season is already tarnishing Romney’s image, especially among the independent voters crucial to deciding the general election.
“The Republican establishment and the Romney campaign want to have a coronation, but that’s not going to happen.”—Robert Walker, Gingrich campaign adviser
“Newt is such an erratic candidate. He’s never played by the rules of mortal men, and I can’t imagine he’s starting now,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who backed Romney in 2008 but has not taken sides this year. “He’s got a long march across the desert coming up in February with little money, so he’s got to become even more extreme and erratic than he’s been so far.”
“Instead of making the case that he can win, he’s making the case that Romney will lose,” Castellanos added. “The election essentially ended in Florida, but it isn’t over.”
The 2012 Republican primary season has been exceptionally volatile, moving in fits and starts and unraveling when just on the verge of tidiness. One front-runner after another comes undone. Conventional wisdom is dangerously wrong. This is the only GOP presidential primary race since 1980 in which the first three contests produced three different winners, and it is the only time that a putative runner-up in a contest was declared the winner 17 days later (Santorum in Iowa).
The chaos could continue. Starting this month, instead of the field hunkering down in one state, the race is fanning out across the country. Romney, Santorum, and Paul are all advertising in Nevada, where voters caucus on Saturday, but Romney and Santorum are also on the radio in Colorado, and a super PAC backing Santorum is on television in Missouri. New party rules pushed most of the winner-take-all contests beyond April 1, encouraging underdog candidates to spend February and March shopping for delegates in states that suit their profile and that dole out their delegates proportionally.
“The campaign is shifting to a new phase, where opportunities are not limited to a single state,” wrote Gingrich’s political director, Martin Baker, in a widely distributed memo this week. “Rather, they present themselves across the entire map, and the shortage of winner-take-all contests ensures that no single race will either clinch the nomination for a candidate or knock a candidate out of the race.”
Gingrich is eyeing Minnesota, where one poll showed him in the lead. Romney won that state in 2008, as well as four others—Nevada, Michigan, Maine, and Colorado—on the calendar this month. In a show of organizational strength earlier this week, Romney’s campaign became the first to submit signatures to appear on the primary ballot in Indiana, which doesn’t vote until May.
The race will last until June or July, Gingrich predicted. “Unless Romney drops out earlier.” That far-fetched scenario may be the safest one to rule out. Romney is firmly on track to return to Tampa in seven months with the nomination in hand, crooning patriotic hymns in whatever key he prefers. “There’s a desire among donors, activists, and party leaders to unite the party and get on with the general-election campaign against Barack Obama, and that’s not going to change just because the rules on allocating delegates have changed,” said Romney adviser Vin Weber, a Republican lobbyist and a former House member from Minnesota. “Very soon, the chorus of Republicans arguing that Gingrich is destructive and self-centered will become overpowering.”
But this race has defied expectations so many times that Gingrich’s confidence may not be out of bounds. Less than two weeks ago, he thumped Romney in South Carolina and appeared ready to do the same in Florida. He didn’t. Two weeks before that, Romney looked like he could sweep all of the early-voting states. Didn’t happen. Only 5 percent of the delegates needed to claim the nomination have been awarded. Nick Ryan, who heads the pro-Santorum Red, White & Blue Fund, insisted, “This race is still wide open.”
GLIMMERS OF HOPE FOR GINGRICH
Few states can bestow bragging rights like Florida, and Romney earned them across the board. He won handily among women and Hispanics, according to exit polls. Voters overwhelmingly viewed him as the candidate who can defeat Obama. Romney was favored by Floridians of every educational level, every income level, and every age group, even winning Paul’s favorite demographic—young people.
Still, if Gingrich has any path to the nomination, he could find some comfort in Florida’s results. He defeated Romney among the most conservative voters and the strongest tea party supporters, and the two candidates split the evangelical vote. These religiously motivated voters have long resisted Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts who once supported abortion rights and who spearheaded a universal health care program when he was governor.
Gingrich can also see a glimmer of hope in the Florida Panhandle, where he surpassed Romney by 1 percentage point in the exit polls. That part of the state has far more in common with the South than it does with the rest of Florida, reinforcing Gingrich’s potential appeal in upcoming Southern primaries.
The Obama campaign also found reasons to cheer the results in the Sunshine State. Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter asserted in a memo circulated to reporters that “the win in Florida came at a very steep price,” noting that Romney was forced to wage a costly and overwhelmingly negative assault against Gingrich. “It’s difficult for Romney to claim Floridians voted for him rather than against his opponents, since less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the ads in Florida promoted Romney positively,” she wrote. “In fact, a single Spanish radio spot was the only positive Romney ad in the entire state during the last week of the primary.”
Romney’s allies say he won’t let up on his offensive against the former House speaker any time soon. While the front-runner plans to resume what was largely a general-election campaign against Obama—a course he was forced to abandon after losing to Gingrich in South Carolina—he will take on Gingrich as needed.
In a sign that Romney wasn’t resting on his laurels after Tuesday’s blowout, the campaign teed up a call for reporters on Wednesday with a leading surrogate, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota; his is one of the only states voting in February that appears within Gingrich’s reach. A win in Minnesota on Feb. 7 would allow Gingrich to dispel the notion that he’s a regional candidate who can win only in the South. Romney himself touched base in Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon before heading to Nevada. An anti-Gingrich ad, nearly identical to the Florida spot that says he “cashed in” on the housing crisis, has already aired for more than a week in the economically hard-hit Midwestern state.
“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 Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. “The most important thing is for us to talk about the issues that really matter to voters as it relates to the economy.” Asked how Romney will improve his favorability ratings, Madden said, “The governor’s favorability and his popularity is at a zenith when talking about how to create jobs and crystallizing the differences between how he would fix the economy and where Obama has failed.”
If Gingrich lets him. He didn’t waste any time picking a fight after the Florida primary, seizing on Romney’s comments on Wednesday that he was “not concerned about the very poor.” Romney went on to say, “There’s a safety net there, and if it needs repair, I’ll fix it,” but Gingrich used the other portion of Romney’s remarks to continue an ongoing line of attack against his rival as a heartless elitist. “I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other. I am running to be president of all of the American people,” Gingrich said while campaigning in Nevada on Wednesday. Romney was forced to clarify what he meant, keeping him, for at least one day, from focusing on his economic, anti-Obama message.
The dustup became fodder for cable news and the blogosphere, demonstrating how Gingrich plans to breathe oxygen into a campaign with little money, few short-term prospects for victory, and no opportunities for nationally televised debate until Feb. 22. His campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, told CNN that Nevada is “the toughest one,” yet Gingrich plans to campaign there through Saturday’s vote to take advantage of the national media covering the caucus.
Gingrich, who prides himself on having “bold ideas,” could also try to sustain his campaign by giving a series of policy speeches. “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.”
How long can it last? Pressure from the Republican establishment is likely to build on Gingrich and the other candidates to bow out so that Romney can set his sights exclusively on Obama. Another big question is whether Gingrich’s biggest benefactor, Nevada casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, will top the $10 million he has already invested in the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future. Without an infusion of cash, Gingrich will be running on a shoestring, although his allies say that prominent supporters such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Fred Thompson will be tapping their fundraising networks for him.
“We’re not going to have funding problems going forward, and we’re expecting this could remain close enough for a floor fight at the convention,” insisted Robert Walker, a Washington lobbyist and former House member from Pennsylvania who is advising Gingrich. “The Republican establishment and the Romney campaign want to have a coronation, but that’s not going to happen.”
This article appears in the February 4, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.