Florida will be the closest thing to a Mitt-Newt one-on-one

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida Republican primary on Tuesday will be unique in two important ways.  For starters, this is the first battle site for the Republican presidential nomination in which candidates will compete for votes among registered Republicans only, the closed primary differing from those in New Hampshire and South Carolina and the Iowa caucuses (all of which permitted participation by non-Republicans).

More importantly, the race in the Sunshine State January 31 has pretty much boiled down to the closest thing  Republican voters will experience to a one-on-one contest between front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.  The recent illness of his daughter Bella has led Rick Santorum to leave the state for the past few days, while Ron Paul has clearly abandoned Florida for Maine and its caucuses.

Given this unique blend of politicking in the Sunshine State, here are some questions to be answered Tuesday:

Is Romney the favorite in the primary?

No argument here.  Even if Romney had not landed those punches in the televised debate last Thursday or had the tremendous financial advantage over Gingrich through the official campaign and Restore Our Future (the “super-PAC’ supporting him), Romney would still be favored over Gingrich because of the Republicans-only nature of this primary.

Because it is limited to registered Republicans, endorsements from elected officials and party officers means more in Florida than it does in an “open primary” state such as South Carolina.  As enthusiastic as his volunteers in Florida and as large as the crowds he drew in Palm Beach, Orlando, and other places over the weekend, self-styled outsider Gingrich is at a clear disadvantage to “establishment” favorite Romney.  Put another way, Romney’s endorsements from Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, III pack more of a wallop than Gingrich’s blessings from Sarah Palin and, as of this weekend, Herman Cain. 

Can Gingrich still pull it out?

Even close advisers to Gingrich privately concede that the former House speaker lost much of the momentum from his South Carolina triumph in less than a week.  The Thursday debate aside, one Gingrich adviser (who requested anonymity) told us: “We told Newt to get away from the negative assaults on Romney, such as questioning his truthfulness and suggesting he’s ‘anti-immigrant.’  Some of us told him to get back to talking only about issues,  But Newt is surrounded by sycophants to just encourage him to do what he wants.”

Fervent Florida Newt-men such as Lee County (and former New York Rep.) Gary Lee insist that their hero’s vigorous legions of volunteers and the enthusiasm he continues to generate with his appearances will be enough to score an upset Tuesday.  But by “upset,” they increasingly appear to mean coming in a close enough second for Gingrich to claim victory and move on.

Will it still be a four-person race Wednesday?

In all likelihood, yes.  Whether he wins big or narrowly, or even if he loses, Romney has the resources to continue into the Nevada caucuses February 3-4 (where he is an overwhelming favorite to win), caucuses in Maine, Colorado and Minnesota the following week and in the Arizona primary February 28.

Gingrich can certainly keep going, if for no other reason than the $5 million each given to his SuperPAC by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam.  The Georgian has also  told HUMAN EVENTS that a key part of his “game plan” is to score well on Super Tuesday—March 6, when eight states will hold caucuses or primaries. 

One can bank on provoking a Santorum supporter these days by asking if the former Pennsylvania senator plans to drop out of the race.  This is the response I got when I posed the question to former Senate staffer and key Santorum adviser Bill Wichterman, who replied without hesitation: “Why on earth should he?  He best Gingrich in two contests [Iowa and New Hampshire], didn’t he? He’s in to the end!” 

As always, one can also bank on Ron Paul staying into the end.  But one should also note that the Texas congressman in effect wrote off the South Carolina primary and left Florida early.  From his activity in Maine over the weekend, Paul would appear to be adopting a strategy of greater focus on caucus states, where a smaller participation in primaries might work to his advantage.

All told, Florida may not change much in terms of who’s in the race.  But the perception of who has the advantage in the race could well be impacted from the state with ten major media markets and where 2 million voted in the GOP primary four years ago.