The early polling in Florida is showing that Newt Gingrich got a bump from his South Carolina win that Rick Santorum largely did not get coming out of Iowa. Newt is now leading Mitt Romney in the state.
However, with eight days, two debates, and millions of ads to go, there’s plenty of time for that to change. So what should we be looking for in Florida? Here are the key questions to keep an eye on.
Will we see any new significant endorsements? Or will neutral party actors wait to see what happens in Florida before taking sides? Remember, there are plenty of very conservative Republican politicians who might be scared about the possibility of Newt taking the whole party down. Yet they may not want to be perceived to be picking Romney over Gingrich. So they may stay silent as long as they can.
Will conservatives who piled on Newt the last time he surged repeat what they did last time? Or will they back off this time? Political scientists have used endorsements as a measure of what the party is thinking, but what we’re looking for now is any sense at all that Republicans who didn’t want Newt to be their nominee are willing to at least contemplate reconciling themselves to it. In other words, the thing to keep an eye on now is the intensity of anti-Newt sentiment among leading party actors, and whether it’s dissipating.
How will Romney’s attacks on Newt play in Florida after the initial post-South Carolina surge dies down? Remember: readers of this blog, who know all about Newt’s many weaknesses, are not typical voters. Very few voters (and especially Fox-watching Republican voters) remember, for example, the fact that Newt was caught violating ethics rules.
This could be the explanation for the strange Romney campaign demand that Newt release information about his ethics probe that’s already publicly available. It’s an easy way for Romney to let Florida voters know about a scandal that they certainly have’t heared mentioned on Fox News any time in the last decade. Don’t assume that Florida voters are aware of Newt’s old positions on health care, climate, and the rest of it — but they probably will be by next Tuesday.
Relatedly, the Romney campaign is getting ready to throw everything it has at Gingrich. It just went up with a new ad hammering Gingrich for his ethics probe and his Fannie and Freddie connections. The Romney camp is reportedly spending $2.3 million on ads for this week along. Will the attacks stick?
Can Romney find a way to diffuse Newt’s debate tactics? There is a perception that Gingrich has performed well at debates. But Newt’s biggest debate successes have been either in attacking the moderators or in praising all the candidates on the platform. He’s been a lot less successful when he’s attacked others directly or defended himself against attacks from others. Can Romney find a way to engage Newt in a way that sows doubts on the issues among conservatives who have been captivated by Gingrich’s attacks on the press?
What about Rick Santorum? Will party actors push him to drop out and support Mitt Romney, an endorsement that could help indicate to social conservatives that Romney can be trusted on their issues? Or do they want him to stay in as insurance against a total Romney collapse? Could Santorum hang on? We’ve seen before a dynamic in which two heavyweights exchange bitter attacks only to see a third candidate benefit? If Santorum drops out, conservative party actors will finally be forced to choose between two candidates they don’t like. What will they do?
We’ll start to see the answers to all of these questions right away, including in tonight’s debate from Tampa.