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.”
This article appears in the February 4, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.