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Monday, January 30, 2012

At the risk of wiping egg from my face, let’s assume that Mitt Romney wins Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida.

The polls say the former Massachusetts governor has surged ahead, reversing a deficit of just a week ago – and, so far, the polls have read the momentum correctly in each of the previous votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Should Romney prevail in Florida, two things are pretty much assured:

  1. As was the case in the 10 days between New Hampshire having just voted and South Carolina preparing to go to the polls, the media will re-engage in “Romney the presumptive nominee” talk. And . . .
  2. The same media will start to ask when Newt Gingrich, the leader going into Florida but now apparently a lagger barring the unexpected, plans to drop out of the race.

As for the “presumptive” talk, the schedule favors Romney in that: (a) there’s not another debate until Feb. 22 (in Mesa, Arizona, CNN co-hosting), meaning Gingrich will have difficulty grabbing the spotlight until then; (b) the pace of primaries and caucuses slows until early March and Super Tuesday (two caucuses on Saturday the 4th, followed by three states on Tuesday the 7th, then nothing until Feb. 28 (Arizona and Michigan).

For the next six weeks, the race goes not to the swiftest, but the best organized.

And that’s been Romney’s strategy all along.

As for when/should Gingrich drop out, the concern among some Republicans is: the longer the former Speaker stays in the race, sniping at his opponent’s record and character, the more trouble he makes for Romney.

Indeed Romney’s numbers with independents have tanked. A Washington Post poll released last week showed him with a 23% positive/51% negative among independents. At the same point in 2008, Barack Obama’s unfavorables stood at 30%. Two candidates who won the nomination battle but lost the November war – John McCain and John McCain – peaked above 40%, not a happy thought for Romney fans.

But there’s a contrarian argument to make regarding Gingrich’s continued presence in the Republican primaries: the longer he stays in the race, the better Romney’s chances of defeating President Obama this fall.

I kid you not. And here’s why:

  1. Gingrich Has Made Romney a Better Debater and a Sharper Campaigner. Before Florida, Romney was none too edgy on the stump and not all that sharp in the candidates’ debates. The smackdown in South Carolina changed that. Romney re-emerged in Florida as a more forceful and confident debater. Campaigning around the state, he’s jabbed away at Gingrich and – dare we say – discovered a couple of tools long missing from his political repertoire: sarcasm and ridicule. With only four debates scheduled through March 19, Romney should hope Gingrich keeps showing up as a sparring partner – if the two Republicans can stand being in the same room, Gingrich would be very helpful when it’s time for debate prep in anticipation of the head-to-heads with Obama this fall.
  2. The Longer There’s a Competitive Race, the Longer Romney Stays in the News. Let’s step back to a previous presidential campaign: 1992. Bill Clinton ran wild in that year’s Super Tuesday states (he won six southern states on the night of March 11, taking a lead he’d never surrender). The race was over bar the shouting. Enter Jerry Brown, who pushed Clinton all the way to California (which he lost by only 7%). Brown upset Clinton in Connecticut and pushed him hard in New York. Their debates became bitter, personal affairs – a good reason to tune in. The point: is without Brown dogging him coast to coast and getting under his skin in the debates (here’s one particularly feisty exchange), Clinton would have had a difficult time staying in the news that spring and early summer. Should Romney be in a commanding position after this year’s Super Tuesday (March 6), he’ll need to find a way to keep the media interested in his cause. Gingrich nipping at his heels helps to address that.
  3. The More Strained Gingrich’s Argument, the More Reasonable Romney. Again, the Clinton-Brown analogy from 1992: the more rabid Brown’s attacks over alleged ethical transgressions (calling the future president “the Humpty Dumpty candidate”), coupled with Brown’s outré campaign (peddling his campaign as a grassroots revolution, pledging to tap Jesse Jackson as his running-mate), the steadier Clinton looked. The same could work for Romney in this cycle, especially if Gingrich keeps after him as a “pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate” and a George Soros favorite. The hunch here: the longer Gingrich stays in the race and the greater his frustration with his rival, the process and the media, the more outlandish he’ll become. Hard to see how Romney doesn’t benefit from that kind of stature gap.