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Political Forecast: Five More Weeks of Crazy

Political Forecast: Five More Weeks of Crazy

“As this primary unfolds our opponents in the other party have been watching, and they like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak. But I've got news for them, a competitive primary does not divide us it prepares us and we will win.”

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his Florida primary victory speech.

"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate, and the voters of Florida made that clear.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a speech to supporters following his Florida primary defeat.

Pity the political pundits. Is the Republican race about over or just warming up? Is the GOP electorate falling in line or getting ready for a six-month civil war?

The pundits can’t know, but that’s never stopped them from telling you before, so why should it now?

Talking heads are talking both ways, sometimes the same head in the same segment. Columnists, analysts and bloggers are very much inflamed. Some say the dominant showing in Florida by frontrunner Mitt Romney means that the “i” word – inevitable – is back in fashion. Maybe it won’t be too long until the “p” word appears: presumptive.

Others say no. Depending on their slant, they claim that the GOP is either getting ready to immolate itself in a Tea Party inferno or that the voices of the American people are just beginning to be heard. But many on the left and right agree in principle: this party is just getting started.

Power Play wishes it knew, but at least isn’t fool enough of a political note to say.

Florida’s primary, a clarifying moment four years ago, has only clarified what we’ve known for a long time: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the man to beat in the Republican field.

Romney has now won both of his must-win early primaries, Florida and New Hampshire, and done so in convincing fashion. Romney lost in Iowa by a little and in South Carolina by a lot. But other than a couple of weeks when the Romneyites had visions of a January sweep, the frontrunners strategy had always been to hopscotch contests focusing on larger, more moderate states.

So on the one hand, Romney is back on track. On the other hand, it’s a wholly different track than we’ve ever seen a Republican nominee follow before and with a very unpredictable GOP electorate.

This isn’t the NFL: you don’t have to win all your playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. Romney’s decisive drubbing of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in big, diverse and expensive Florida is the frontrunner’s strongest statement of dominance so far. It’s also proof that while the Romney campaign has made some tactical errors in recent weeks, their overall strategy is holding up.

But the truth is, we won’t start to know until the end of this month whether Romney is making his strategy stick.

There are a handful of non-binding contests this month, where the conservative yin and yang, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, will battle for recognition and the frontrunners will try to claim either momentum sustained or momentum regained. But not until Michigan and Arizona vote on Feb. 28 and then the week after that when Super Tuesday comes will we see how this crazy story of the GOP 2012 will end.

Romney hopes that a double-barreled win at the end of the month and then a dominant showing on Super Tuesday when 12 states will award 509 delegates – almost double the number in the 11 contests the precede it – will end this range war.

Gingrich, however, has some hopes of his own. And while the news in Florida was very unhappy for the former speaker, it was not uniformly so.

Gingrich’s 14-point loss in Florida was delivered at the hands of a variety of voters. Exit polls show the former speaker lost among men and women; among voters with high school diplomas or less and those with graduate degrees; among Tea Party movement supporters and Tea Party opponents; among those who favor deporting illegal immigrants and those who favor a pathway to citizenship.

It was a perfect rout. Rich and poor, urban and rural, Anglo and Hispanic – they all gave Gingrich the kiss-off in Florida, flocking to Romney who was judged to be the candidate most likely to defeat President Obama.

Gingrich only won one major demographic group: the 33 percent of voters who described themselves as “very conservative.” While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney romped among liberals, moderates and “somewhat conservative” voters, Gingrich carried the “very conservative” third of the electorate by 11 points.

And look at the counties Gingrich carried: almost the entire northern tier of the state, which is part of the heart of Dixie. And Gingrich didn’t just win in some of these counties, he dominated. There weren’t enough votes there to begin to offset the brutal defeats Gingrich suffered in South Florida, but it does lend some credence to his campaign strategy that with a lot of delegate-rich southern states to vote next month, Gingrich has time to wait for the next gust of wind to fill his sails.

Florida certainly narrowed Gingrich’s chances, but it certainly didn’t end them. We’ve got at least five more crazy weeks to go.


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

-- Power Play, the political note, will be on hiatus for the remainder of this week. “Power Play with Chris Stirewalt,” will be guest hosted both days at 11:30 Eastern by the host’s gracious FOX News colleagues.

 

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.

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