With his lopsided win in Florida, Mitt Romney displayed nearly all the skills and talents a front-runner might need.
He was able to decimate his leading opponent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, through a series of disciplined and sustained attacks, and he had the organizational capacity to press every tactical advantage.
The only thing he failed to do, some critics maintain, was present a convincing case that he's the best possible Republican candidate to take on President Obama.
Romney did score well among Florida voters who see the ability to beat Obama as their paramount concern, according to exit polls.
"His advisers think that he can do to President Obama what he did to Newt Gingrich," says Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "But there's a lot of concern in Republican circles about Romney's ability to make a persuasive case for himself, as opposed to tearing down his opponents."
No Quick Knockouts
Romney can look forward to a good month. Many of the states holding caucuses and primaries in February look like they will be his to lose.
But the peculiarities of the GOP's nominating rules this time around mean that, in contrast to previous nominees, the former Massachusetts governor won't be able to run up an insurmountable lead in delegates until April, at the earliest.
Florida violated GOP rules by deciding to grant all its delegates to the statewide winner — a decision that may be challenged. But other states aren't following the party's traditional "winner take all" course.
And the continuing determination of the other candidates means it will take even longer before Romney — even assuming he does wind up as the GOP nominee — can mend fences and coalesce party support solidly behind his candidacy.
"He could be the first nominee to come out of the primary process in a long time where his unfavorable ratings are higher than his favorables," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "That's very serious damage that's been done already."
Over the course of the year so far, the campaigns and the media have mostly concentrated on one state at a time, with each contest separated by a week or 10 days. But the field will now broaden quickly.
Nevada holds its caucuses on Saturday, when Maine's weeklong caucuses begin as well. On Feb. 7, Colorado and Minnesota hold their caucuses, while Missouri will hold a nonbinding presidential primary that day without Gingrich on the ballot.
Romney has the greatest organizational capacity among the candidates for fighting on several fronts at once. And, between now and Feb. 22, there are no debates that would give his opponents the chance to wound him or earn free media attention for themselves.
"As you see more and more victories for Mitt Romney, February is going to be a very bad month for Newt Gingrich," says Curtis Loftis, South Carolina's state treasurer and a top Romney adviser there.
"The money's not going to be there for Newt to be competitive," Loftis says. "It's not going to be over in February, but it's going to be clear that Mitt is the guy we need."
Even Romney's opponents concede he'll have the advantage in many of the contests coming up. Romney won Nevada easily four years ago and has been a presence in the state ever since, says Dan Burdish, a campaign aide to Gingrich in that state.
"Florida takes away [Gingrich's] momentum and makes it a little more difficult for us," Burdish says. "But we're still working as if he's going to finish well here."
Gingrich Eyes The South
Gingrich has vowed to press on, all the way to the GOP national convention in August. Most observers expect that he'll remain Romney's leading challenger, although conservative voters may take another look at former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Several Southern states will vote in the first half of March, giving Gingrich a chance to renew the regional appeal that helped carry him to victory in South Carolina.
Despite Gingrich's Florida loss, he carried many counties in the state's northern and Panhandle sections, areas that tend to vote in line with other Southern states.
He may also be able to give Romney a run elsewhere, including Minnesota next Tuesday.
The "bandwagon" effect — where voters are swayed by momentum gathered in earlier voting states — may be weaker than usual this year, says Jacobs, the Minnesota political scientist.
The GOP primary electorate remains split — with many conservatives still not sold on Romney, he says.
"Outside of the Northeast, there are not going to be many more states as favorable to Romney's brand of Republicanism," says Olsen, the AEI scholar.
Other New Factors Apply
As Jacobs points out, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision on campaign finance makes it possible for a handful of wealthy backers to keep a candidate afloat. A superPAC supporting Newt Gingrich has received $10 million thus far from one wealthy couple and may yet take in more.
That changes the usual dynamic that causes trailing candidates to drop out when their money supplies run out. And the ongoing series of debates GOP candidates have engaged in have given the party's lesser lights a big platform, as well.
"As long as the debates are continuing, I don't see any of these four dropping out," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Gingrich and Santorum and Ron Paul all have ideological stances to take and the debates are going to continue to give them the platform to see that their positions don't die."
All of this is adding up to an unusual primary season for the Republican Party, which typically falls quickly in line behind a broadly supported candidate who does well in the early states.
"It's a much more fluid situation than the Republicans ordinarily have," says Lewis Gould, a historian of the party. "The debate process and all that's happened has revealed fault lines within the party that had been submerged by their dislike of Obama."
Is Disdain For Obama Enough?
It's too early to say how divisive the entirety of the primary process will prove to be. It's traditional for nearly every eventual nominee to have to make peace with his opponents and their strongest supporters.
If Romney does eventually take the nomination, the current doubts some Republicans maintain about him will be washed away, suggests Curt Kiser, a former state legislator in Florida.
"This is about as nasty a primary as I've ever witnessed," Kiser says. "But the dislike of Obama is so strong, among the Republicans and even the independents I know, that I don't think it's going to cause problems. People are going to think, 'We've got to beat him with whoever we've got, and Romney might not have been my first choice, but I've got to support him.' "
That's clearly what Romney is counting on. But he may lack the "delicacy of touch" and the ability to listen to the deepest concerns of other people, Gould suggests, that the job of uniting the party will require.
"What Romney has not done is give any compelling case whatsoever why someone who has felt slighted or ignored by the Republican establishment should back him, other than that he's not Barack Obama," says AEI's Olsen. "If he can't do that, he's going to have a very hard time unifying the party."
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