Mitt Romney’s ‘big win’ in Florida tells us very little. It reinforces what everyone outside of South Carolina already knew – that Newt Gingrich is not electable in a national campaign.
In a contest that showed off Gingrich’s inability to resist a big idea, no matter how politically foolish, the worst was Gingrich’s enthusiasm for a lunar colony. Can the hard-pressed voters of Florida, huge numbers of whom have lost their homes or are struggling to pay their mortgages, really be expected to support the use of their tax dollars to build condominiums on the moon? (One has to hope Gingrich isn’t advising Freddie Mac to back mortgages on those condos!).
Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will continue to contest future primaries, but the calendar now favors Romney. After Florida, the GOP primaries prior to “Super Tuesday” are in Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan. Among these states, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona border the Mormon stronghold of Utah, where Romney’s mother was born; and Arizona’s senator McCain has already endorsed Romney. Maine is a New England state, a region where Romney is strong, and in Michigan Romney’s father was a popular governor. Only Missouri — whose primary is a popularity poll that will not impact GOP delegate counts — looks to favor Gingrich as a southerner, yet he failed to register for the ballot there. Only Minnesota looks like ‘neutral’ territory, giving Romney the edge in six of the next seven primary states. So Romney should roll into super Tuesday with great momentum.
We thus look set to have an election between two Harvard-educated elitists whose major legislative accomplishment is enacting universal health care. Yet if the economy is still struggling in the Fall, the election will be portrayed as pitting a candidate who fixed weak companies for a living and succeeded hugely in the private sector and will use those skills to heal the weak economy vs. a candidate with no business experience who spent piles of government money to rescue private businesses, without fixing the economy as whole. That is a battle that Obama cannot win.
Yet Romney’s big win in Florida also tells us something about Romney. If he can only beat the unelectable Newt by 14 points, while Gingrich and Santorum together gained virtually the same number of votes as Romney, that says that conservatives still are looking for an alternative. So come Fall, Romney vs. Obama could become a race between the conservative candidate that conservatives don’t trust, and the liberal candidate that liberals love, provided that Obama can position himself as the person who will use the power of government to limit corporate greed and protect the interests of the working and middle classes. That is a battle that Obama likely can win, especially if that message resonates with hard-hit workers in key electoral states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
So it will be Romney vs. Obama in November. But what that means, and how voters see the candidates, will be determined by whether conservatives are drawn toward, or put off by, the Romney ticket. So the obvious answer is to pair Romney with Rick Santorum as the vice-presidential candidate. That is the ticket that will give Obama’s campaign planners many sleepless nights.