Power Play

The Worst is Yet to Come in Florida Contest

The Worst is Yet to Come in Florida Contest

“That's simply inexcusable. That's inexcusable. And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate. Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive.”

-- Mitt Romney in Thursday’s CNN Republican presidential debate.

Brace yourselves for what may be the five ugliest days in the history of presidential primary politics.

With deepening animosity between Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, tons of money, massive media interest and the GOP nomination on the line, the run-up to the Florida primary on Tuesday will be strictly scorched earth.

In Thursday’s CNN debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney gave his rival a taste of the former House speaker’s recipe for debate success: righteous indignation mixed with sharp attacks

Gingrich, who once won admirers for counseling against Republican-on-Republican violence when he was a marginal candidate, changed his course after getting smashed in Iowa by Romney attacks and those of a pro-Romney super PAC.

Declaring his experiment in positive campaigning over, Gingrich began a frontal assault on Romney that started in New Hampshire and carried him to a huge win in South Carolina, as Gingrich hacked at his tormentor and the press to the lusty cheers of his supporters. Voters seemed to agree that Gingrich had earned the right to start slashing.

On Thursday, Romney turned the tables, taking extreme umbrage at a Gingrich ad that called illegal immigration hard-liner Romney “the most anti-immigrant” candidate in the race.

In a state heavily populated with immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans, that’s a serious attack.

Romney, a child of privilege who turned good opportunities into a great fortune, has been indignant at attacks before, but has struggled to be righteous about it. Romney has seemed annoyed and impatient at the jabs of his rivals, but has always been sheepish about showing anything more than pique.

It’s likely from the same sense noblesse oblige that has caused Romney to act so self-consciously about his wealth. It would be beneath a man of his stature to lose his temper just as it would be beneath him to appear to be bragging about his success.

Well, seeing the nomination he has been angling for since 2007 about to be ripped away by brawling, bawling Gingrich convinced Romney to lose the stiff upper lip and start fighting back.

The perturbed patrician Romney was on display in the debate too – acting incredulous that people didn’t understand that sometimes one’s blind trust opens a Swiss bank account without one’s knowledge, or that one’s campaign sometimes runs attack ads without one’s knowledge, etc. – but there was a new fighting side.

The Gingrich ad cut close to the bone for Romney, who previously positioned himself at the far right of the field ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina on the issue but now needs Latino support in Florida. Being painted as some kind of nativist would be deadly in the Sunshine State.

He wasn’t exactly Merle Haggard, but Romney showed some fire when he called Gingrich’s immigrant attack line “repulsive.” Believing he has now earned the right to do to Newt as Newt had done to him. Expect Romney, his campaign, friendly media outlets and super PAC supporters to swing even harder before the polls open on Tuesday.

The main thrust for Romney and the Romneyites has been to impeach Gingrich’s character. It’s the former speaker’s weakest point and Romney and his backers in the media have pulled out all the stops in exploiting it. The argument over Gingrich’s claim to the Ronald Reagan legacy that raged on Thursday was evidence of that.

So what’s a Newt to do?

Gingrich is doing his best to seem plausibly presidential. In that way, Romney’s character attacks are already working. Gingrich fears being seen as erratic and wrathful, but it is his anger that his supporters love. In the debate last night, Gingrich seemed more plaintive than presidential.

This is similar to what happened in Iowa. Gingrich, anxious about looking like a crazy man, tried to sit on a lead and stay above the fray. He determined that experiment to be a failure, and is unlikely to allow Florida, which could resurrect Romney’s inevitability cloak, end the same way.

Gingrich and Team Newt will hit back in the coming days -- hard.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“On coal, the EPA is shutting down mine after mine with regulations that the mines can't meet, which is not going to do anything to help the global warming. The Chinese are building a coal plant a week. We are exporting our coal jobs and mines to China.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.


Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.