Jan. 31, 2012: Newt Gingrich, left, and Mitt Romney campaign in Florida on primary day.AP
Jan. 31, 2012: Mitt Romney takes questions from reporters at his campaign office in Tampa, Fla.AP
Jan. 30, 2012: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Pioneer Park in Dunedin, Fla.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
That's the lesson of Florida, where Mitt Romney overwhelmed Newt Gingrich on the air and in every other aspect of the campaign. He out-organized him, out-messaged him, and out-researched him, if an exchange in the last debate where Romney seemed to know more about Gingrich's investments than Gingrich himself is any indication.
Gingrich the historian has any number of analogies he can draw on — he was the Persians at Marathon, the French at Agincourt, the Zulus at Rorke's Drift. In short, he got wiped out.
Florida shows why when running for president, you usually need to have a presidential campaign to be successful. Gingrich was a lone man raging -- often quite literally -- against the machine arrayed against him. It turns out that all those aides who quit on Gingrich way back at the beginning of his campaign, for all their disloyalty, were right that he needed to build a traditional campaign infrastructure. He got far on his native wit, his imagination, and his gutsiness, but you can't buy TV advertising with any of those qualities.
After South Carolina, the cyborg that is the Romney campaign locked Gingrich in its sights and marked him for destruction. It wasn't particularly inspiring, and at times, it wasn't even fair. The Romney team made ready use of the old ethics charges against Gingrich that were a Democratic smear job. But Gingrich has so many vulnerabilities he is practically the personification of a target for negative ads. He reacted in Florida exactly as he did to a similar assault in Iowa: badly.
He struck out wildly. He called Romney names. He lamented his fate. By the end, his campaign was disgracing itself with a laughably crude robocall accusing Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, of denying kosher meals to Holocaust survivors.
To counteract Romney's money and organization, Gingrich needed electrifying debate performances but didn't deliver them, a blow to his chances in Florida and to his electability argument, which is heavily dependent on the notion that he would effortlessly flatten President Obama on the debate stage.
All this created the predicate for Romney's across-the-board sweep. According to exit polls, he won by 20 points or more both among voters who cared most about the issue of the economy (60 percent of the electorate) and voters who cared most about defeating President Obama (45 percent of the electorate). He held Gingrich's margin of victory among voters who strongly support the Tea Party down to 46-34. In a sign that Marianne Gingrich's ABC interview may have had a delayed effect, Gingrich had an astonishing gender gap, losing women by about 20 percent.
Romney is now the dominant frontrunner again without having yet made a compellingly positive case for himself, although his victory speech promising "a new era of prosperity" was a start.
His nemesis Newt Gingrich isn't going anywhere. The former Speaker vows to take his fight all the way to the convention and his campaign has its eye on Super Tuesday states in the South. While Romney began to pivot toward the general election in his speech, Gingrich hit Romney again as a "Massachusetts moderate" and rallied the forces of "people power" versus "money power."
Conventional wisdom holds that the stiff challenge from Gingrich has made Romney a better candidate. If that's true, he's going to get the chance to get better still.
Rich Lowry is editor of The National Review and a Fox News contributor.