By John Barron
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s victory in the Florida Republican presidential primary was no more and no less than he had to do to cement his place as the frontrunner.
After his stinging 12 per cent loss to former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary ten days ago, his 14 per cent win in Florida feels like a comeback, and in a way it is after Gingrich jumped into a fleeting lead in the sunshine state a week ago.
Yet there are enough points of weakness in Romney’s Florida result to keep his rivals interested.
Romney won big in Miami-Dade and Orange County and all the places you want your Republican candidate to be competitive in November, yet Newt Gingrich generally won in the Florida panhandle, taking counties bordering on Alabama and his native Georgia. Was that a case of home-town advantage or a sign that the more conservative Deep Southern voters are still wary of Romney?
You can’t help but notice Romney does well in counties and states that are more likely to vote for Obama, while Gingrich is stronger where there are more actual Republicans — a problem?
And, despite Romney’s negative ad blitz, Gingrich is still out in front in most national polls.
The same questions arise about Romney today that have nagged for months:
- Can he excite the Conservative base of the Republican Party enough to vote for him in the primaries and again in November against Obama?
- Can a more passionate conservative still overcome his establishment advantages?
- And will Newt Gingrich kick over the card table rather than see a “Massachusetts moderate” win the nomination and — as he sees it — give Barack Obama a second Presidential term?
For conservatives there are a few nagging questions of their own to ponder:
- Why hasn’t a conservative alternative been able to stand up under the scrutiny of a presidential campaign for more than a few weeks before crashing back to earth?
- Could Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum really be their guy?
- And if it’s not Newt, just how mad is he going to get?
Unlike previous campaigns, when candidates who have won only one from four primaries would be heading back to their day jobs, Gingrich and Santorum both see an opening.
Like Ron Paul, they are vowing to stay in the contest right through until the convention in Tampa in late August.
Over the next week we’ll see a series of caucus votes that could clarify some of these issues.
Ron Paul’s supporters say he’ll follow Obama’s 2008 strategy and sweep the caucuses, which require a higher level of commitment and organisation.
Rick Santorum’s campaign will be glad to get back to the Mid West and tap into the Christian conservative votes in Minnesota and Missouri.
Mitt Romney will be hoping his Florida momentum will have more Republicans follow the establishment flag: having won the "electability argument" over Gingrich in Florida, he’ll now hope to win the "inevitability argument."
And as for Newt?
Who the heck knows?
1 February 2012