In Florida Romney Trounces Competitors, But Gingrich Steals Thunder With Bizarre Speech

It's hard to remember that less than two weeks ago, in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was riding high on his South Carolina primary victory, poised to descend on Florida as Hurricane Newt. But on Tuesday, Gingrich suffered a ringing defeat in the Florida primary at the hands of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won 46 percent of the vote, compared with Gingrich's 32 percent, according to CNN.

Gingrich responded to the loss with a speech that can't really be called a concession speech, because he failed to concede. Romney, in a more gentlemanly fashion, did acknowledge his rivals (who also include former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, and Rep. Ron Paul), though not by name, calling them "serious and able competitors."

After citing remarks made by President Abraham Lincoln at the 1863 dedication of a Civil War cemetery, Gingrich, a highly compensated historian, contended that he would continue to fight for the nomination by waging "a people's campaign -- not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street-funded campaign..."

With those remarks, Gingrich effectively declared war on the Republican Party. After all, in the week just past, the party leaders had declared war on him. And with Newt still favored by Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians, it's something of a civil war that could deeply divide the GOP. Standing behind Gingrich as he made his remarks (with third wife, Callista, at his side), was a platoon of supporters holding signs that read: "46 MORE STATES TO GO."

The Stop Newt Campaign

As we noted late last week, leaders of what passes for the Republican establishment these days -- a rather odd coalition of fading former moderates and a couple of Tea Party favorites -- launched what appeared to be a coordinated attack on the former House speaker. Bob Dole, the former presidential candidate and Senate majority leader, issued a scathing statement that all but blamed Gingrich for the defeat of his presidential bid. Elliott Abrams, who served in the Reagan administration, challenged Gingrich's attempt to assume the Gipper's mantle. Ann Coulter, the pundit of the poison pen, said that a Gingrich nomination guaranteed a second Obama term.

Then the coup de grâce: Sen. Marco Rubio, who sets Tea Partiers swooning, condemned a Spanish-language radio ad run by Gingrich that characterized Romney as "anti-immigrant" -- a label that matters in a state with a large Latino population. Rubio called on Gingrich to stop running the ad, and the former speaker cut his losses and withdrew it. Meanwhile, Romney continued to hit Gingrich with negative ads, and Gingrich's superPAC went after Romney with brutal spots suggesting that Romney had taken part in a Medicare fraud scheme. Gingrich denied knowledge of a robo-call made by his campaign alleging that Romney, while governor of Massachusetts, forced elderly Holocaust survivors to eat traif when he ended state funding for the provision of kosher meals at nursing homes. The Florida electorate comprises a high percentage of senior citizens.

Stealing Romney's Thunder

By his sheer belligerence and the bizarreness of his non-concession speech, Gingrich managed to steal Romney's victory thunder, even while speaking from the ground of his own defeat. The Twitterverse came alive as Gingrich delivered his stemwinder; its denizens only nodded politely as Romney spoke, making occasional note of the former governor's statements.

"I think Florida did something very important, coming on top of South Carolina," Gingrich said. "It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate."

Santorum won only 13 percent in the Florida contest, while Paul, who didn't even campaign in the state, garnered only 7 percent.

"We are going to contest every place," Gingrich added, "and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa [site of the upcoming Republican National Convention] as the nominee in August."

While Gingrich lashed out both at Romney and Obama, Obama took the brunt. Gingrich, now playing the role of the faithful Catholic -- his third religion, arrived at after two divorces -- trumpeted his recent theme of a made-up "war on the Catholic Church and other religious institutions," which he contends the administration is conducting. As evidence, though without ever stating it explicitly, Gingrich offered the rules in the new health-care law that require employers to provide contraception coverage in any health-care benefits package given to employees. (While the church itself is exempt, institutions such as universities and hospitals run by it or other religious organizations, are not.)

He painted Obama as an agent of decay and a foe of Israel.

Gingrich added, "I'm not going to be singing like Obama, because I'm not running for entertainer-in-chief." In Florida, Gingrich had to play the race card a bit more subtly than he did in South Carolina, because the Republican base is a bit more diverse in the Sunshine State.

He closed by invoking the oath of the Founders that appears in the Declaration of Independence: "I promise you that if I become your president, I pledge to you my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor." (Some would settle for a return of the fortune he made delivering historical advice to the government-supported mortgage giant, Freddie Mac.)

Romney, the Wounded Victor

Mitt Romney emerged victorious from Florida, but it was not a happy victory. He split the all-important evangelical vote with Gingrich, and failed to win even half of the total votes cast. Still the state is winner-take-all, so Romney won a big prize in the form of 50 delegates to the GOP convention. But the nastiness of his campaign against Gingrich left him with high negatives going into future contests, sullying the nice-guy image he has assiduously cultivated for, lo, these many years. Last week's Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that nearly half of respondents now had a negative view of the Massachusetts governor, an increase of some 20 points. By some estimates, Romney and his supporters outspent Gingrich by 5 to 1 in Florida, most of it on negative advertising.

While Romney omitted any direct reference to Gingrich in his victory speech, Gingrich's influence was all over those remarks, as Romney appropriated Gingrich's themes, and repackaged them in more acceptable -- and sometimes more vague -- language.

"President Obama orders religious organizations to violate their conscience," Romney said. "I will defend religious liberty and overturn regulations that trample on our first freedom." So, he's not quite accusing the president of a war on religion, but you get the picture. (Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches has much more on this trumped-up "war on religion.")

Romney, the multi-millionaire, even tried his hand at playing the elitism card that has served Gingrich so well in ginning up anger. "Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy," Romney said. (Accusing the black president of denigrating the economy is an especially clever twist.) Romney's accusation is laughable in the face of Obama's paean to the manufacturing economy in last week's State of the Union message, but never mind. It was a Gingrichian accusation, rooted not in fact but in the politics of resentment, as was Romney's characterization of "Obamacare" as the province of all-controlling "bureaucrats."

And whoever wrote Romney's speech for him surely deserves a bonus for this line, which grabs from Gingrich's race-tinged promise to be a "paycheck president" in contrast to Obama who he famously described as the "food stamp president:"

"Together, we will build an America where ‘hope' is a new job with a paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker," Romney said.

See how that works? Gingrich did the dirty work; now Romney doesn't even have to say the "food stamp" part. And we all know whose bumper sticker that faded word appeared on, right?

While Gingrich's performance earned him accusations of delusion for his promise to win the Republican presidential nomination in the face of daunting odds, Romney's remarks contained their share of delusion, as well.

"A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us," Romney said. "And when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party..."

Good luck with that.

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