Power Play

Your Florida Field Guide

Debate over GOP primary battle


Your Florida Field Guide

“You’ve got to rage against the machine and save what is good and prosperous about this nation. We need somebody who is engaged in sudden and relentless reform.”

-- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a FOX News Channel interview on Saturday urging viewers to “annoy a liberal, vote Newt!”

Republican presidential frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are careening into Tuesday’s Florida primary with the subtlety of flamethrowers and the self-restraint of sumo wrestlers at a pig picking.

Policy points have long ago been forgotten except as props in what has become a primary about character. They are now both calling each other liars. Romney says Gingrich is inventing his past as a conservative crusader as evidence of the longstanding Romney claim that the former speaker is erratic and self-serving. Gingrich says Romney is making dishonest charges as evidence of a longstanding Gingrich claim that Romney will say and do anything to win power for its own sake.

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Very rough stuff, and reminiscent of the time, almost exactly four years ago that then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in Ohio uttered the now infamous words “Shame on you, Barack Obama.”

The former Massachusetts governor and the former House speaker and their allies are holding nothing back, presumably because they both know that if Romney wins in Florida, as expected, he will reassume much of his onetime aura of inevitability.

Remember that Florida has always been Romney’s firewall.

Before Romney tried to make a quick sprint to the nomination while the conservative candidates were still splitting up the Not Romney vote, the original strategy was for the frontrunner to pass by very conservative Iowa, win in more moderate New Hampshire, weather another expected loss in very conservative South Carolina and then pull away from the pack in Florida, an expensive state with plenty of moderate Republican voters.

But merely by replicating his 2008 vote share in Iowa, Romney ended up essentially tying Santorum, a surprise showing that seemed to vindicate Romney’s divide-and-conquer strategy for the right. Romney won New Hampshire in a boat race and looked like he might be able to lock up the nomination in South Carolina. Instead, the Not Romney vote consolidated behind Gingrich and thanks to the help of a lot of rural and blue-collar voters, Gingrich scored a huge upset. Now the race is in Florida, where Romney holds huge structural advantages and has a good chance to reassert his dominance.

The only difference between the way things have worked out for Romney and his campaign’s Plan A is that the frontrunner actually committed his resources and prestige to the hostile terrain of Iowa and South Carolina. That has left the impression of a pitched battle and, occasionally, a candidate in crisis. Part of that comes from the fact that in competing for South Carolina, Romney stumbled into a swamp when he botched talking about his fortune: how he made it, where he keeps it and the taxes he pays on it.

But, the current Real Clear Politics Average shows that Romney leads in the Sunshine State by 11 points, taking 41 percent to Gingrich’s 30. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum grabs 14 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul takes 10 percent. The most recent Florida polls have been all over the map, varying by as much as 8 points. But the Quinnipiac University poll, one of the best for Florida races, showed Romney up on Gingrich by 14 points with Santorum and Paul getting more than doubled by the former speaker.

But Florida Republicans, like GOPers everywhere in the country, have been decidedly undecided this year. The Quinnipiac poll taken around the time of the South Carolina vote showed Romney’s Florida margin at only 2 points. At the beginning of the month, Romney led by 12 points. Eight weeks ago, Gingrich was up by 13 points.

Florida’s 50 delegates will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis, but momentum is what matters. The next month offers six nominating contests, but the first four are all lightly attended, non-binding caucuses or straw polls that direct delegates, but don’t award them. The big contests don’t resume until Feb. 28 with honest-to-goodness, winner-take-all primaries in Arizona and Michigan. One week after that, comes Super Tuesday.

Florida is the last chance for Romney and Gingrich to clash in a high-profile, conclusive contest for the next four weeks. Everybody says they will go to ground and rack up delegates whatever happens in Florida, but it’s a lot harder to do if you limp out of the big time.

Here are the stakes for the contenders on Tuesday:

Mitt Romney

South Carolina Polling Average: 41 percent

Needs: To get his mojo back

The flight down to Florida must have been a gloomy one for Romney. The thing he feared most, a united right, was emerging. After a December collapse, Gingrich surged back stronger than ever and was poised to deliver a fatal blow to the former frontrunner in Florida.

But, nine days and many millions of dollars later, things are looking much better. Romney did two important things in Florida: He got over his tax bungle from South Carolina and dropped some of his aloofness in the two debates in the state.

A Romney win, especially one by big margins, would dispirit potential Not Romney voters in later states and hive him some much-needed breathing room to raise money and establish a Super Tuesday firebreak.

Newt Gingrich

South Carolina Polling Average: 30 percent

Needs: To keep it close

Gingrich is suffering badly for the ongoing attack on his character from Romney and his backers. While Gingrich’s response to John King’s debate question about the allegations of the former speaker’s second wife was a smash hit in South Carolina, the reminders about his former personal failings, has cast shadows over Florida.

Gingrich has gotten good news in Florida, though. Fred Thompson, Herman Cain and, to some degree, Sarah Palin, have some out for him. This is more evidence of the united right that Gingrich needs to get there.

But there was bad news on that front, too. Santorum, taking a page out of Gingrich’s old playbook, appeared to be friendly and focused on Obama in a pair of Florida debates. Add to that the outpouring of sympathy and support for Santorum, who had to rush to Pennsylvania to the bedside of his daughter, Bella, a toddler with a rare genetic disorder.

Santorum, who might have been heading for hash marks after South Carolina, has instead managed to remain in the low double-digits and might outperform expectations.

It may be true that in Florida, a vote for Santorum is a vote for Romney as Gingrich claims, but if Romney is headed for a win anyway how many voters, unnerved by weeks of character attacks on Gingrich, decide to reward family man Santorum with their support? Romney doesn’t have to drive voters to his own side. Just so long as he keeps them home or voting for someone other than Gingrich.

And that matters a great deal for Gingrich, because although delegates may be winner-take-all, momentum is not. A Florida blowout would cast further doubts on Gingrich’s electability, but a close race would signal a process that is not yet completed.

For Gingrich to do that, he would need the same thing that he had in South Carolina – a surge of upstate voters. Gingrich won South Carolina with a tremendous turnout among conservative, ornery-minded voters, shattering turnout rates from 2008.

Polls didn’t catch all of that because pollsters turnout models didn’t account for all of the upstate surge. Gingrich needs something similar in Florida.

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. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.