(Image: Washington Times)
On the eve of the Florida primary, all signs seem to be pointing to Mitt Romney.
After Newt Gingrich’s decisive victory in the South Carolina primary, Romney knew he had to fight back. After a pair of dismal debate performances, which had been his ticket back to relevance, and a barrage of criticism from within his own party, Gingrich is facing yet another, possibly devastating political defeat.
Consider what a Romney win in Florida will mean.
It will be a second primary win and likely a second resounding win. It will be in a state Republicans must win to have a chance in the general election, and it will be in a state with a diverse electorate with ten major media markets.
If Romney wins big it will be a huge boost of momentum. It will be a big pelt to nail on the wall while adding fuel to the narrative of both Romney’s inevitability and electability. Although a month still separates Florida from Super Tuesday, Florida would be the biggest win for any candidate and Romney is sure to win at least two more contests in between: Nevada, which he won decisively in 2008 and his birth state of Michigan.
Yet one cannot help but notice that a Romney candidacy is still disdained by much of the party.
And despite what a Florida victory would mean for Romney, Gingrich shows every sign that he is willing to remain in the race for the long haul. Appearing Sunday morning on ABC, Gingrich said he expects the race to “go all the way to the convention.” Gingrich appears to think that even if Romney wins Florida, that he has the opportunity to fight Romney in a war of attrition with all the proportionally-awarded delegates .
But Gingrich is ill-suited for that. When several states are hosting primaries simultaneously, he won’t be able to barnstorm as he did in South Carolina. To compound his lackluster organization, Gingrich is not just a one-man band. He is a one-man-three-ring-circus.
And last week Gingrich was blasted from the right and from the establishment.
1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole pointed out that “hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him.” Conservative movement veteran and magazine publisher R. Emmitt Tyrrell disparagingly referred to Gingrich as “Our Bill Clinton.” Reagan White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan revealed that the Gipper’s team considered Gingrich an “opportunist.” And neoconservative extraordinaire Elliot Abrams broke the hearts of many a GOP water-carrier by implying Gingrich was less than Reagan-y. Conservative stalwarts and establishment alike see in Gingrich an electoral waterloo. Think Goldwater without the philosophical consistency.
The party is in the midst of fighting a battle of the establishment vs. the conservatives. Except in this Bizarro World play the establishment is backing someone with almost zero government experience and the conservatives are trying to consolidate themselves around an insider who spent twenty years in Washington as a representative, lobbied afterwards, and who got his start as a Rockefeller Republican. It doesn’t take Kreskin to see how this ends.
Conservatives must know they are fooling themselves. They know Romney is anything from an empty suit to a Massachusetts Moderate. But the rationale conservatives are using to justify lining up behind Gingrich is simply that he’s not Romney. Consider Sarah Palin’s reasoning to support Newt in South Carolina: “If I had to vote in South Carolina, in order to keep things going, I’d vote for Newt.” In other words, the main reason to support Gingrich is not because he is has adequate conservative bona fides but merely for the purpose of making Romney sweat out the nomination who, at the end of the day, is still going to be a moderate.
The odds are stacked against conservatives being able to thwart a Romney nomination via Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has the money, organization, and most of the party backing. But if conservatives do beat the odds, will they realize that in denying the nomination to a northeastern moderate, they are merely substituting a rounder, less stable version in his place?
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, in this primary fight of Romney vs. Gingrich, conservatives who choose style over substance should not be surprised when the election comes and they have neither.