Unless the citrus gods have a last minute change of heart, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich should lose handily to former governor Mitt Romney in today’s Florida primary – and for good reasons. Gingrich came off his stunning South Carolina victory ten days ago with enormous momentum and the opportunity to derail Romney’s once invincible-looking campaign while unifying the conservative wing of the GOP and tea party into an awesome force.
It was a chance of a lifetime. Instead, an overconfident and underprepared Gingrich walked into a Romney ambush in Florida, where he was torn to shreds by Super PAC negative ads and where he essentially mailed in two GOP debate performances. Gingrich let Romney define him as erratic, greedy and an embarrassment to his party – someone who left Congress “in disgrace” and then made his fortune on K Street as an “influence peddler” for Freddie Mac and other reviled institutions. Once Gingrich stumbled through and triggered those landmines, it was only a matter of time before Romney’s huge, 5 to 1 advantage in spending for TV ads in the sprawling Florida media market finished him off.
For sure, Florida won’t be a knock-out punch for Gingrich -- the former Georgia congressman has vowed to stay in the race “through the convention,” where he hopes that the sizeable “Anybody-But-Romney” forces will rally to his side. Twice before, Gingrich’s campaign tanked to the point that the news media and campaign experts wrote him off, and twice he came roaring back. So it’s risky to totally count him out. But there will be plenty of post-mortems offered in the coming days trying to make sense of Gingrich’s collapse in Florida. Here are five factors that may have had the biggest impact:
• Nobody likes a crybaby. The New York Daily News had it right back in November 1999 when it carried a front-page cartoon of a crying baby Newt in diapers throwing a tantrum after President Clinton put him in the back of Air Force One and ignored him on a trip to a funeral in Israel. Gingrich was so angry that he returned to Washington and shut down the government – and then admitted he did it for spite.
Gingrich rose to power in the House by ruthlessly portraying his Democratic foes as crooks, traitors and taxaholics. Yet he seems genuinely shocked that the Romney forces have hammered away at his greatest vulnerabilities: namely that his own GOP House troops forced him out of office after a disastrous 1998 mid-term election, and that he was reprimanded by the House for an ethics violation and later paid $300,000 to cover the cost of the prolonged ethics investigation.
Romney has argued convincingly that rather blowing the horn on improper activities by mortgage giant Freddie Mac, Gingrich and his Washington consulting group took $1.6 million in fees for providing advice and “historic” context to the housing crisis. Gingrich has spent much of the past week crying about Romney distortions of his record and doing his best to trash Romney’s reputation. He has called him a Massachusetts moderate, a “liberal” and the biggest liar to ever run for president – making reconciliation within the party nearly impossible later this year. His message is clear: if I don’t get the nomination, then Romney will go down in November.
• Women are turned off by Newt. Many voters are willing to cut their political leaders a little slack when it comes to marital indiscretions. The fact that former President Bill Clinton enjoys enormous popularity in political retirement despite the Monica Lewinsky/impeachment imbroglio is a testament to that fact. But even under the best of circumstances, it’s tough to win the presidency after two messy divorces and a third marriage to a long-time mistress. (Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona had a tough enough time running for president in 2008 with just one divorce in his background.)
When Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, told ABC news that her former husband had asked her for an “open marriage,” and CNN’s John King made the mistake of asking Gingrich about it as a lead off question in the South Carolina GOP debate Jan. 19, Gingrich masterfully turned the question against King and the “elite media” and used the rude inquiry as a rallying cry to win the primary. But once the details of Gingrich’s messy marriages began to sink in more, women voters had to wonder whether Gingrich’s situational ethics represented the values they want in a president.
Romney led Gingrich by 15 percentage points among all likely Florida Republican voters in an NBC/Marist poll released on Sunday. Yet among female voters, Romney led by 21 percentage points. In polls, Gingrich had problems among women, who were far less likely to support him. Media interviews with women voters over the weekend indicated that while many admire Gingrich’s conservative views and command of the facts, they feel he is carrying too much personal baggage for their taste. Asked by reporters why he was having problems with women voters in recent polls, Gingrich replied: “I have no idea.” Think again, Newt.