Yesterday’s results in Florida show that Romney has the capacity to adapt his campaign following a terrible showing like the one he had in South Carolina. Aided by a new debate coach, Romney’s debate performances in Florida went a long way to deflate Newt’s assertion that he alone can win the rhetorical battle against Obama. Time, money and organization are now working against Gingrich at a crucial time in the campaign. Florida may be the beginning of the end of Newt.
In the coming weeks, there will be a greater bundling of states with relatively few debates in between. Since the debates are often the venues for lesser candidates to offset the wealthier and better organized candidates, this can only favour Romney ahead of March 6 (Super Tuesday). It is difficult to see how Romney can be stopped at this stage. Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, where there’s a significant Mormon voting bloc, should only add to Romney’s momentum.
But is Romney becoming a stronger candidate in the process? Clearly, Romney has proven in Florida that he can throw a punch as well as take it. The problem is that the Republican frontrunner is less popular compared to Obama than he was just a month ago. The negative tone of the last few weeks has contrasted significantly with the Obama-Clinton battle of 2008. In 2008, Clinton made Obama a stronger candidate by the end of the primary season. Gingrich ‘s campaign has done the opposite to Romney.
Romney’s record at Bain Capital, his tax records, the personal accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, a closer scrutiny of his performance as governor, and his extensive use of negative advertising remove some of his lustre as a viable alternative to Obama. What was shaping up a few months ago as a referendum on Obama and his handling of the economy is now transforming itself into a contest between competing visions. I presume this fits the Obama strategy.
As Romney moves on to the next contests, he will have to keep an eye on what follows in a general election. Lines and cliches to the party faithful are fine for primary victory speeches, but they will have to give place to passion and convictions in the battle with Obama. The fact that Romney has been forced to go more to the right to win this contest may ultimately make it more difficult for him to widen his appeal in the presidential showdown in the fall.
Meanwhile, Romney’s opponents have given no indications they will give up. Ron Paul gave a feisty speech and Rick Santorum sounded the right note calling for a shift to issues from personality attacks. Gingrich’s losing speech displayed his usual pomposity and lack of grace, but it seemed hollow in content this time around. With Romney ‘s strong showing in Florida, Gingrich knows the writing is on the wall.