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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Florida Weekend: Romney Reasserts

What a turn of events. I'm still stunned. Of the myriad candidates who aggressively attempted to make themselves palatable to the GOP, it's Mr. Vanilla who looks to be the last to raise Republican taste buds. Mitt Romney's combative, confident, and crafty debate performance on Thursday night sewed up Florida, and it sewed up the Republican nomination. Others might characterize this prediction as premature. I do not.

Many factors make this development astonishing. First, consider that Republicans had seemingly been searching for an anti-Romney candidate that could compete with him for close to a year and finally found one, only to lose him in a matter of days.

Second and similarly, Newt Gingrich had all the momentum heading into this week. But of all the candidates' surges over the past six months, has any candidate's momentum so quickly and visibly been squashed? I think not.

Third, and perhaps most surprising of all, debates are considered by many pundits, me included, as the former Speaker's finest strength. Indeed, it was his debate performances--and the numerous debates--that allowed his campaign, for so long, to survive on a shoestring budget and pathetic national organization. While Romney poured millions into ads and a metropolitan infrastructure, Gingrich used the free debates as opportunities to engage and court the Republican voter, and he did it better than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan.

But then there was Thursday night. When writing Gingrich's post-mortem, we will point to January 25 as the end of his campaign. So outclassed was he by Mitt Romney that I have altered the left sidebar's odds of the three major candidates without seeing any new polling data (I'm allowing 36 hours for polls to reliably gauge debate effects), to say nothing of not needing to see the Florida Primary's ensuing shake up.

And how did he do it? By taking the gloves off and being proud of it. In past debates, he'd either attempt to focus on President Obama, or he would admonish his competitors while sporting an uncomfortable smile. Early in Thursday's debate, however, Romney confidently chided Gingrich's evaluation of Romney's immigration stance ("The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive."). Boot placed squarely on Gingrich's neck, Romney never let Gingrich breath all night. In response to an abrasive--and ultimately withdrawn--Gingrich ad, Romney charged "I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets."

Gingrich squirmed. Countless times he tried to win the crowd--something that in the past had come so easy to him--but it just wasn't happening on Thursday. At one point, like a football team waiting to use a trick play, Gingrich attacked moderator Wolf Blitzer for his "nonsense question," hoping to rally the crowd as he did against Blitzer's colleague, John King, in the final South Carolina debate. But his trick play was snuffed out behind the line of scrimmage. While the crowd did momentarily rally to Gingrich's Antimedia Crusade, deus ultimately did not vult. First, Blizter stood his ground. Then Romney helped the moderator fight back ("Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?"). It came to nothing for the Speaker, and Romney capitalized. Gingrich, it grew increasingly clear, was stuck on the treadmill for the night, which is probably the only time anyone has ever written that down.

Romney wasn't perfect ("you're fired" and his forgetful nature about the ads he approved come to mind), but he didn't have to be. He just had to be better than Gingrich. Moreover, he was able to win the crowd. In fact, so popular was Romney with Thursday's audience that some began to wonder if the GOP stacked the crowd with Romney supporters, just so the party could more quickly arrive at the inevitable nominee before the party's centrifugal forces tore it apart.

If you're wondering about Rick Santorum and Ron Paul's roles in this ostensible dichotomy, I'll get to them soon. Truth be told, IC is awfully busy. While writing here about the Election of 2012, I'm also writing a Master's Thesis on the Election of 1948. Perhaps I can cap a PhD off with a comparison between the two!

Anyway, for Santorum and Paul analysis, and more Mitt v. Newt, check back in again as we close in on Tuesday's Florida Primary. As always, thanks for reading.

-IC

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