The Once and Future Front Runner: Why Romney Is Winning in Florida and What Comes Next

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Ring Power Lift Trucks in Jacksonville, Florida, Jan. 30, 2012.

In a Republican-primary season marked by political chaos, here’s something that finally seems settled: Mitt Romney will win the Tuesday, Jan. 31, Florida primary. So say the latest public polls, several of which suggest Romney has a double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich. So say Romney supporters, who have delighted in discombobulating the former Speaker with a week of overwhelming force from all directions. And so say many Gingrich backers, who are already looking past Tuesday’s contest to find states in which their candidate might live to fight another day.

Winning is always better than losing, of course, but a Florida victory would be particularly sweet for Romney. For months, his advisers prepared for scenarios in which Romney lost the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary and relied on a Florida victory to fast-track his march to the nomination. But they didn’t anticipate that Gingrich would be the one to win South Carolina or that a swirl of controversy over Romney’s business background, tax payments, weak debate performances and moderate record as governor would accompany the loss.

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Romney and his team have recovered in Florida by returning to attack mode and keeping pressure on Gingrich. They have flooded the TV and radio airwaves with ads, released a phalanx of Establishment supporters to engage with the media, sent pro-Romney members of Congress to rattle Gingrich at his campaign events and debuted a more aggressive Romney on the stump and in the most recent debate. Even Romney’s most optimistic backers could not have anticipated how thoroughly the former Speaker would be thrown off message by their assault. Just as in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich has faded rapidly in the polls and is now angrily defending himself against attacks that are accurate enough in parts to require a response and inaccurate enough in others to infuriate him.

However unlikely, Romney could still lose to Gingrich in Florida, which would make his path to the nomination much tougher. If his South Carolina loss was a grave test for the front runner, a Florida defeat would be a disaster, calling into question his viability as a general-election candidate. Many in the GOP establishment would fear for Romney’s chances against Barack Obama in the fall if Romney proved incapable of besting the underfunded Gingrich in a large battleground state.

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But the reverse is also true: Republicans looking for a warrior to face off against Obama have been heartened by Romney’s strong debate performances and his team’s clinical takedown of Gingrich in Florida. Still, even with a win there, Romney faces major obstacles en route to the White House.

First, there is no indication Gingrich will give up anytime soon. He’s now talking about staying in the race all the way to the convention in Tampa regardless of Tuesday’s results, or, for that matter, those of the six electoral contests in February. Romney’s dismantling of his opponent has been, in a way, too thorough: attacked in TV ads paid for in part with Wall Street money, eviscerated in public by members of the Washington elite and disparaged in person by Romney himself, Gingrich will be indignant, irate and determined enough to fight on. And with more-favorable contests in the South coming up in March, he may see no reason to exit the race, which is, after all, just beginning.

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Romney’s campaign is determined not to repeat the mistakes it made after Iowa, when it became complacent about the Gingrich threat and shifted focus to the momentarily surging Rick Santorum. But Boston will have to carefully calibrate its attacks to ease Gingrich out of the race without alienating his supporters or provoking nuclear retaliation.

And Romney has his weaknesses. He still has a highly unfavorable rating. In national polls, he continues to trail Gingrich. While he performs better than Gingrich against Obama in head-to-head matchups, he is beginning to slide as the President’s approval ratings are on the rise. Gingrich may be losing momentum as he grapples with fundraising challenges and questions about his temperament, but Romney is failing to unite the party or attract independents.

Which leads to the second problem Romney now faces. Although he successfully defended his business record in last Thursday’s debate, Romney has shown a vulnerability on the issue in recent weeks that has shaken his supporters. All sides have long known that Romney’s work for — and income from — Bain Capital would be a symbolic issue in a general election, but his frequently tin-eared efforts to talk about it have left Democrats with a plateful of opposition goodies.

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Add to that the disclosure of his 14% effective tax rate, curious financial holdings in the Cayman Islands and a recently closed Swiss bank account, and it is clear that Obama’s re-election campaign has picked up substantial political assets in the past few days. Indeed, even as Boston has eviscerated Gingrich, many Republicans have been unnerved by the sloppy way Romney and his team have handled his taxes, especially since they’ve had years to get Romney’s fiscal house in order and craft a response. Having funds in the Cayman Islands, regardless of whether they’re fully taxed or under his control, is the kind of unforced error that can bury a candidate.

For now, Romney must grapple with the “Oh no!” factor. “Oh no!” cried some Republicans after Gingrich won South Carolina, pondering the notion of the volatile former Speaker winning the nomination and driving the party to electoral ruin in November. Such visions prompted party luminaries like Bob Dole to hit Gingrich with maximum force. But if Romney claims victory in Florida on Tuesday and the impatient media declare him the inevitable GOP nominee, shouts of “Oh no!” will emanate from the right-leaning anti-Establishment. Sarah Palin, talk-radio hosts and Tea Partyers, among other conservatives, are not ready to crown a leader with Romney’s record on health care, jobs and social issues.

So starting on Wednesday morning, the questions hanging over the 2012 race will likely become: How will the once and current Republican front runner handle the incoming “Oh no!” wave from the right? And how will he juggle those concerns with the fresh resurgence of an incumbent President who’s confident he can and will keep his job?