Romney's Florida Victory Unlikely to Deter Gingrich (Analysis)

Mitt Romney Outside Campaign Bus - H 2012

Mitt Romney Outside Campaign Bus - H 2012

The former House Speaker, with a well-funded super PAC, vows to fight on.

Republican Presidential Mitt Romney hopeful got the victory he needed in the Florida primary, but his party probably got something it would rather have done without—a bruising struggle likely to continue right through to the Republican convention in August.

Romney’s aides were hoping for Tuesday's convincing double-digit win in an effort to dissuade ideological conservatives from coalescing around his only serious rival, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who ran second in Florida’s winner-take-all 50 delegate primary.

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To that end the former Massachusetts governor outspent Gingrich five to one. Romney’s money bought an avalanche of negative advertising, all of it aimed at Gingrich. It also apparently turned off a fair number of Florida’s Republican voters, 37% of whom told CNN’s exit pollsters that Romney ran the most unfair campaign.

Romney’s advisors came out of South Carolina, which Gingrich won, feeling that they had to retool their advertising campaign into a negative assault on Gingrich and his record.

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Florida is bound to seem—to the Romney camp, at least—as a vindication of that strategic decision. But while it may have secured victory in Florida, it also further inflamed Gingrich, who already had begun to treat the campaign as a grudge match with Romney.

Gingrich reaffirmed Tuesday that he is in the race until the end—and that’s bound to give the GOP establishment pause. More than any other single individual, Gingrich is responsible for the bitter partisan divide that currently gridlocks American politics. His rise to the House leadership fundamentally changed both the conduct of that chamber and national campaigning.

As head of GOPAC, the political action committee that identified and helped school a new generation of Republican lawmakers, Gingrich urged his colleagues to use labels like “America hater” and argued that the Democrats wanted to “destroy” the country and its traditions.

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He is now, as he was then, his critics say, one of politics’ great haters—and Romney is the current object of his animosity. Consider these examples from the last day of campaigning in Florida: He charged that Romney is “pro-abortion, pro-gun control and pro-tax increase” and that as governor of Massachusetts he demonstrated an hostility toward religious liberty by cutting off kosher food subsidies for elderly Jews on Medicare and forcing Catholic hospitals to provide morning after contraceptives. "The conservative movement is not going to sit back and say, 'Oh yes, let's let Wall Street and Mitt Romney buy the election,'" Gingrich said. "So you're going to see a real grassroots fight. It will be people power vs. Goldman Sachs and Mitt Romney."

The reference to Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, which manages a large chunk of Romney’s fortune, is part of Gingrich’s increasingly fevered characterizations of the former private equity investor as a plutocrat indifferent to the concerns of working- and middle-class Americans. Monday, Gingrich pointed out that Romney, thus far, has received $367,000 in campaign contributions from Goldman.

"Goldman Sachs received $10 billion in emergency loans and bailouts from the Federal Reserve during the Wall Street bailout," wrote Gingrich's communications director Joe DeSantis. "This raises the question: Are Mitt Romney's dishonest attack ads against Speaker Gingrich being indirectly funded by the US taxpayer while Governor Romney uses shady accounting gimmicks to avoid paying his fair share of taxes?"

In a country increasingly concerned with issues of economic fairness, that sort of attack is likely to resonate with anxious and angry voters. The GOP elders have to be dismayed at the prospect of an enraged Gingrich repeating such charges all across the country in the months between now and the convention.

Gingrich is a determined and effective opponent -- and he has a deep-pocketed benefactor in gaming mogul Sheldon Adelson, who continues to make major donations to super PACS’s associated with the former House Speaker. That raises the prospect that Romney might successfully win the nomination, but stagger out of the Republicans’ Tampa convention a badly wounded general election candidate.