State of play in Florida: Challenges and opportunities for Newt

Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, 40 percent to 28 percent, over Mitt Romney. He also won every Congressional district and, in doing so, won all of South Carolina’s 25 delegates.

Now the battle heads to Florida, which holds its primary on Jan. 31.

Here are five things to look for as the race heads to Florida.

1. Momentum versus organization

Newt Gingrich will come into Florida with momentum, gained from winning South Carolina’s primary, which every Republican presidential nominee has won since 1980.

But Romney has a head start in Florida. He has hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots probably in the bank for him. In addition, Romney and groups associated with him have spent nearly $4 million in advertisements, in both English and Spanish. Gingrich has not had the opportunity to pour any money into Florida yet.

But in a state that is won on the airwaves, Gingrich gets free media on every station. And this blanket coverage will significantly boost Gingrich in a state that he was ahead in by 20 percentage points just two months ago.

In 2008, John McCain won Florida on the strength of his wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Well organized establishment candidates, such as Charlie Crist and Bill McCollum, however, have lost their respective senatorial and gubernatorial bids to Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

In the week ahead, it will be interesting to see if Romney’s diligent and traditional organization can withstand the onslaught of free media and positive coverage Gingrich is likely to get from his win in South Carolina.

One other thing that should be noted: The last batch of polls from Florida were conducted before Gingrich debated in South Carolina. Gingrich was trailing Romney by over 20 percentage points in those polls. But if one can assume that Floridians watched the nationally televised debates, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Romney’s lead over Gingrich has narrowed in Florida, as it did in South Carolina and nationally, where a Gallup poll released on Friday found Romney’s 24 point national lead trimmed to 10 points in a five day span.

2. Romney’s attack machine versus Gingrich’s debating skills

Losing Florida would be devastating to Romney, and Team Romney will spend the next week attacking Gingrich. But will anything new surface about Gingrich?

As Romney ramps up his attacks, Gingrich will fortunately have two debates, on Monday and Thursday, that he can use not only to defuse the coming attacks against him, but to perhaps again use the moderators as a foil to endear himself to Florida’s Republican voters.

3.  Closed Primary

Florida is the first true closed Republican primary. No independents or Democrats are allowed to cross over and vote. This favors Gingrich, as the electorate is guaranteed to be more conservative, as a whole, when the primary is closed. In addition, the more conservative the electorate is, the more problems Romney will have.

4.  Will the GOP establishment help Romney combat Gingrich?

Will the Republican establishment help build up Rick Santorum to try and help Santorum peel away votes from Gingrich? Will they pressure Bachmann into endorsing Romney? Will they aid Romney in negatively defining Gingrich?

Gingrich scares the establishment. And Gingrich has said he scares the establishment because the establishment knows they cannot control Gingrich. On the other hand, many in the establishment fear Gingrich because they think he lacks the discipline to be an effective leader.

If Gingrich can convince Floridians that the establishment fears him because he is not a part of the establishment and threatens to take a wrecking ball to  the GOP establishment, he may win over a significant chunk of voters in Florida who, like Republicans across the country, loathe the Republican establishment, and do so even more this cycle.

Another thing to look for is if anyone significant publicly steps forward to help Romney. Already, Jeb Bush, who was rumored to be in Romney’s camp, said he would stay neutral in Florida’s primary. The reason is obvious — a Romney endorsement may hurt the politician in the future.

This is the same dilemma that may also present itself to Marco Rubio.

5. Will Sarah Palin support Gingrich again?

Sarah Palin’s words about Gingrich helped sway many in South Carolina. Will she now tell Floridians to vote for Gingrich? Palin is extremely popular among Tea Partiers and conservatives in Florida and a public pronouncement of support may help Gingrich win Florida and extend the primary process even more.