It’s no secret that the Florida primary is a must-win for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But, it’s also a victory that former House speaker Newt Gingrich needs to have too.

Republican presidential candidate and former House speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, sign autographs during a campaign stop in Cocoa, Fla. on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux)

Less obvious but no less real are the decidedly high stakes for Gingrich in the Jan. 31 Sunshine State primary.

Gingrich’s entire campaign, to date, has been built on two basic elements: 1) The idea that Romney is simply not conservative enough for the average Republican primary voter, and 2) The former House speaker’s demonstrated prowess in debates.

A loss in Florida could badly damage Gingrich’s argument on both fronts.

First, the state is a closed primary — meaning that only registered Republicans can vote. A Romney victory would put lie to the “can’t win Republican votes” argument.

Second, there won’t be another debate after the gathering tonight — tune in to CNN at 8 p.m. to catch it and The Fix for a live chat — until Feb. 22, nearly a month from now. Without debates to level the playing field, Romney’s electability argument — not to mention his financial and organizational advantages — could well take over in the five weeks between Florida and the March 6 Super Tuesday contests.

Mark McKinnon, an unaligned Republican strategist, said that the combination of Florida’s diverse population and its winner-take-all delegate structure — whoever wins the state wins all 50 delegates — make it a must-win for Gingrich.

“Gingrich’s only real chance to win the nomination is to win Florida,” McKinnon said. “Otherwise, like Rommel, his fuel lines will run out. And Romney’s won’t.”

What McKinnon is alluding to is the financial help Gingrich has received to date from Sheldon Adelson, the wealthy Las Vegas casino magnate, who has pumped millions of dollars into a Gingrich-aligned super PAC known as Winning Our Future. The group has, in turn, dumped millions into television ads in Florida.

Without Adelson’s largesse, which could well dry up if Gingrich can’t pull out a win in Florida, the former House speaker has little campaign infrastructure or capacity to compete financially with the cash-flush Romney.

There is something more symbolic at stake for Gingrich in Florida, too. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who hasn’t chosen sides in the Republican race, says Gingrich needs Florida “to prove he can actually capture the nomination.” Added Cole: “If Romney wins in Florida, followed by Nevada and Michigan, Gingrich will have a hard time convincing the media and the political elite he is anything other than a one-hit wonder.”

The best primaries are, of course, the ones that both candidates have to have to win. (None of the first three votes — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — were must-wins for both Romney and Gingrich.)

Political reality may dictate that two men enter Florida but only one man leaves as a viable presidential candidate. It’s political Thunderdome.

More Florida poll guts: We noted Wednesday that Gingrich’s momentum appears to have stopped — both nationally and in Florida.

But Rick Santorum’s lack of traction in the state could help Gingrich. And now that Santorum is toying with the idea of leaving the state before Tuesday’s primary, his supporters (11 percent in the poll) may look to Gingrich as an alternative.

As in other states, the new Florida poll shows Gingrich is getting more conservative voters, evangelicals and tea party supporters, while Romney is relying on more moderate voters.

Despite taking just 11 percent in the poll, Santorum is taking 16 percent of born-again Christians and 18 percent of tea party supporters.

If he throws in the towel in the Sunshine state, that probably helps Gingrich.

Romney already appears to be benefitting from Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) decision to largely skip the state, though given how dedicated Paul’s supporters are, the 9 percent he’s currently at may be his basement.

Despite Romney’s two-point lead overall in the CNN poll, he trailed by 10 points among conservatives, which means he’s relying on Republicans who lean toward the middle. (Though independents are not allowed to vote in Florida.)

Gingrich pledges to create moon colony: How’s this for grandiose?

Gingrich on Wednesday said he, as president, would create a colony on the moon and develop a spacecraft capable of traveling to Mars by his second term in office.

“I was attacked the other night for being grandiose,” Gingrich said. “I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.”

Gingrich, of course, is full of big ideas like this. So much so that Romney has hit him on the campaign trail for being ”zany.”

But a big idea like this may hold special appeal to Florida, the home of the country’s space program.


President and Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) get into a heated exchange.

Romney: The first Mexican-American president?

The Orlando Sentinel has endorsed Romney.

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who supports Romney, seems to be following Gingrich.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), the frontrunner for the open seat left by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), raised just $400,000 in the fourth quarter. No other candidates have entered the race since Nelson retired, but Bruning faces a primary with state Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. Deb Fischer.

Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) gets some bad press for missing some meetings.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $5.3 million in December and retired the last of its debt from the 2010 election. No numbers from the House GOP’s campaign committee yet.


If GOP fight drags on, so could argument over Florida’s delegates” — Adam C. Smith, Tampa Bay Times

Romney, Gingrich trade attacks on immigration” — Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, Washington Post

Newt Gingrich proud to be ‘grandiose’” — Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

State of the Union: What might pass?” — Paul Kane, Washington Post