Everybody is focused on momentum, money, and manpower as the keys to victory in Florida. But the three Ms won’t matter much. It is a fourth M that will determine the winner: message.
Don’t count on Mitt Romney’s money or organization to win the Florida primary after his devastating loss in South Carolina. And don’t bet on Newt’s momentum coming off a win to mean a whole lot. With two debates next week, it will be these rhetorical matchups that will determine the winner, not money or manpower. The GOP debates are the functional equivalent of campaign finance reform!
Florida is a very different state from South Carolina. It has an altogether different mix of the three elements that comprise the GOP electorate. It is strong on national security and evangelical conservatives, but there are fewer economic conservatives in the mix. The Florida Panhandle is a lot like South Carolina, but its west coast is pure Midwestern and its east coast is composed largely of New York and New Jersey refugees and Latinos – quite unlike South Carolina.
Newt Gingrich’s social populism played well with evangelicals (and Romney’s religion hurt him). His long-standing embrace of a strong military attracted lots of military active and retired voters to give him a winning coalition.
But, in South Carolina, it is the free market economic conservatives who will predominate.
To win, Romney must link Newt’s attacks on Bain Capital and his tax rate to Obama’s class warfare. He needs to play jujitsu to Newt’s new found economic populism, making himself the poster boy for capitalism.
But, first, Romney needs to release his tax returns. There is likely nothing in them so deadly as the question mark that hangs over the GOP contest. Where formerly Romney was seen as the most likely to defeat Obama, now worries about what might be in his taxes overshadow his claim to electability.
If Newt hits Romney over taxes, he will be playing into his rival’s hands and setting up the class warfare argument for Mitt. For his part, Romney must explain the inequity of double taxation to voters and should ask a simple question: Does anyone in America voluntarily pay more than they legally owe in taxes? So why should I have done so? Then he needs to cite his millions in charitable donations to explain what he does instead with his fortune.
For Newt’s part, he will make a big mistake if he continues to pound on Romney over taxes and Bain Capital. If he attributes his victory in South Carolina to these attacks, he will be wrong. He won because of his positive message. He triumphed because he won the debate on Monday in grand style – slamming Paul for comparing Osama bin Laden to a Chinese dissident seeking asylum and calling Obama the “foodstamp president.” His incredible insights, his unique way of looking at issues, and his intellect and sagacity brought him to victory in South Carolina, not his attacks on either the media or Romney.
Santorum is still in this race. In a four way contest, if A and B attack one another, it is C and D who benefit. After a week of watching Mitt and Newt fight it out, Rick will look pretty good to many voters. His relatively strong finish in South Carolina – 17% isn’t bad – after languishing in single digits in most polls was due to his victory in Thursday’s debate. So he is still on the map and the likely beneficiary of the battle between Romney and Gingrich.
Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum each have a shot in Florida. But the Sunshine State won’t determine the outcome. This battle still has a long way to go!