Former Republican senator Mel Martinez (Fla.) said Monday that he cringes at the prospect of a bitter contest continuing into the summer. “It only benefits President Obama,” he said on NBC’s “Daily Rundown.”
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, no friend of the establishment, took the opposite view over the weekend on Fox News. She accused Republican elites of trying to “crucify” Gingrich and said it is far too soon to stop vetting the candidates. “If for no other reason, rage against the machine. Vote for Newt,” she said.
Whatever the outcome Tuesday, the Florida campaign has crystallized the battle between Romney and Gingrich. The backlash against Gingrich since his victory in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 has made Romney the clear establishment favorite in a party in which tensions between the GOP elite and its insurgent grass roots are still strong. The endorsement of Gingrich by former presidential candidate Herman Cain, a tea party favorite, underscored the split.
Gingrich is hardly the perfect vehicle to lead a tea party protest against the establishment-backed Romney, given his record as former House speaker and later as a Washington consultant. Nor has he found a message that captures what the tea party represented when it first arose.
Still he has the capacity, if not the resources, to wage a long and personal campaign against his rival. In the past few days, he has escalated his attacks on Romney, labeling the former governor as a liberal rather than a moderate and calling his character and honesty into question.
Romney has responded by matching insult with insult. He has belittled Gingrich as a complainer and doubled down on his attacks over his work for the housing agency Freddie Mac. Romney’s campaign appearances are mild compared with the negative ads running on television here, both from the Romney campaign and the super PAC supporting his candidacy.
Political analysts are looking at past nomination battles for clues as to what might happen if the Romney-Gingrich contest continues unabated for a while.
At this time four years ago, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were waging an increasingly nasty Democratic primary campaign against one another, coming out of a South Carolina primary in which some African American leaders accused former president Bill Clinton of playing the race card against Obama. Although many predicted otherwise, Obama and Clinton eventually reconciled.