After Florida’s Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, the sprint for the nomination will become more of a stroll.
From Feb. 1 to March 5, only three major contests will allocate delegates: Nevada’s caucuses (Feb. 4) and primaries in Arizona and Michigan (Feb. 28). Ten states will vote on March 6 — Super Tuesday — including big population hubs such as Ohio and Virginia.
That amounts to a major change of pace for the four remaining candidates, who, by Tuesday night, will have weathered four voting contests — spread out nationwide — in a single month.
How will the slowdown affect the race?
Let’s first assume that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney winds up winning the Florida primary. Virtually every poll released over the past four days — and there have been many — suggests that Romney has opened up a high-single-digit or low-double-digit lead over former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Using his financial advantage — not to mention his well-funded super PAC — Romney has clubbed Gingrich on the Florida airwaves and benefited from the former speaker’s mediocre debate performances and virtually nonexistent message discipline (permanent moon colonies, anyone?).
A Florida win — particularly a convincing one in the double-digit range — would set up Romney very nicely for the slow month of February. He is a clear favorite to win the Nevada caucuses — he took 51 percent of the vote there in 2008, in large part because of the state’s Mormon population — and should be favored in Michigan, the state where he was born and his father served as governor, and Arizona, another state with many Mormons.
That trio of likely Romney wins on the heels of a come-from-behind victory in Florida could bode poorly for Gingrich, who has struggled to bring in money through his own campaign and whose rise has been fueled by the panoply of debates. (The next GOP debate is scheduled for Feb. 22 in Arizona.)
“Candidates need two things to survive: money and attention,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican media consultant. “Newt may not have the money, but he has always had the skill of grabbing attention.”
Luntz added that what Gingrich says on Tuesday night — presuming he does come up short in Florida — is “essential” as he tries to continue. Gingrich presumably will, even if he loses, pledge to fight on — casting the contest as one between an honest conservative and a say-anything-to-win moderate.
Gingrich’s future in the race also will depend heavily on the continued largess of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has donated $10 million to a super PAC supporting the former speaker. If Adelson decides to stop writing checks, it’s hard to imagine Gingrich raising the sort of cash he would need for a major push before Super Tuesday.
Still, argued Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant who worked for Romney in 2008 but is neutral in this campaign, if Gingrich can make it to Super Tuesday, he may be able to breathe life back into his campaign (again).
“The only thing that is a worry is Super Tuesday,” Castellanos said. “That is tilted toward Dixie, and Super Tuesday plus another check from Adelson preclude the establishment from forcing Newt out.”
A look at the Super Tuesday schedule reveals three Southern states where Gingrich should be favored — Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee — while Romney would be the front-runner in Massachusetts, Ohio and Virginia, where Gingrich’s name will not even appear on the ballot.
That sort of Super Tuesday split decision has the potential to derail the “Romney as de facto nominee” story line that will almost certainly grow if the former governor wins Florida.
That is a big “if” for Gingrich, who has shown the capacity for high highs and low lows in the race. He has proved surprisingly adept at the sprint of January. The question is whether can survive the slow walk of February.
“I do not think geography or the map is Newt’s problem,” said Curt Anderson, a GOP strategist. “I think Newt is Newt’s problem.”
For more Fix columns, go to postpolitics.com.