Romney rivals face tough choices in next stage of GOP fight

Mitt Romney scored a decisive victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary, but the GOP hopefuls are already looking ahead as they enter the most scrambled portion of the race.

Over the next seven days, voters will go to the polls in five states — Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri — and the candidates not named Romney will have to make tough choices on where to focus their efforts.

Here’s what you can expect.


Mitt Romney:

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Romney is the only candidate who can play seriously in all five states — some of which seem custom-made for him. Nevada and Colorado are Western states with large Mormon populations, and Newt Gingrich, his leading rival, isn’t even on the ballot in Missouri.

Further, Romney has by far the most money, the best organization and all the momentum coming out of a landslide Florida win. 

“Ours will be a united party,” he said in his victory speech. Look for him to try to stress his electability, which was given a huge boost in Florida. Romney appears to have finally consolidated the party, and won resounding victories with groups that were supposedly loath to back him.

Among Tea Party supporters, Romney beat Gingrich by 4 percent on Tuesday night, undercutting suggestions from his GOP rivals that he can’t attract staunch conservatives. The former Massachusetts governor also trounced Gingrich among those who were neutral or opposed to the Tea Party movement (by 36 and 39 percent, respectively).

The key takeaway is that Romney’s base of support is growing larger, while support for the remaining candidates grows smaller. Consider this: Romney received as many votes as Gingrich and Santorum combined.  


Newt Gingrich:

There’s no natural fit for Gingrich in the next five states. With its Tea Party core, only Nevada has a favorable electorate, but Romney’s strength and organization from his 2008 win there is formidable. 

For Gingrich, the task is clear: Survive until March, when the favorable, Southern-heavy Super Tuesday states arrive, and fine-tune a message that veered seriously off course in Florida. That message, perhaps born of necessity, will continue to focus heavily on Romney’s business record and ties to Wall Street and efforts to contrast his record in Massachusetts with Gingrich.

In his concession speech, Gingrich said “people power” would “defeat money power in the next six months.” Unfortunately for Gingrich, Florida proved that money power was stronger as Romney parlayed a massive financial edge into a win. 

“He’s only got a million and a half in the bank,” said Karl Rove on Fox News, discussing Gingrich. “He can’t fight this without having finances.”

But in a sign that he’s going to continue to fight, Gingrich’s campaign defiantly stamped a poster on the former Speaker’s podium before his Florida election-night speech. It read, “46 states to go.”


Rick Santorum:

Santorum immediately framed Gingrich’s loss in Florida as a repudiation of Gingrich’s ability to be the conservative alternative to Romney.

“In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity. He came out of the state of South Carolina with a big win and a lot of money. And he said, ‘I’m going to be the conservative alternative. I’m going to be the anti-Mitt.’ And it didn’t work.”

To that end, Santorum has already placed TV ads in Nevada that attack only Gingrich, while staying quiet on Romney. In the never-ending race to be the sole anti-Romney, Santorum thinks there are blue skies ahead.

Missouri, where Gingrich isn’t on the ballot, is a friendly, culturally conservative environment for Santorum, and he’s expected to focus on the state, as well as Nevada, where he’ll go head to head with Gingrich for the hardcore Tea Party vote.

If Gingrich continues to self-destruct during the next week, Santorum has a chance to best him in enough contests to try to reclaim the mantle of the anti-Romney.


Ron Paul:

He abandoned Florida early, but has hardly left the race. Four of the next five states are caucuses, and that environment suits him perfectly.

As he told his cheering supporters on Tuesday night: 

“We will spend our time in the caucus states because if you have an irate, tireless minority, you do very well in a caucus state.”

On that, Paul is exactly right, and many observers think he could have a very strong showing in the caucus state of Maine, particularly, but also in the Nevada contest this Saturday. Money is less of an issue for Paul than it is for Santorum or Gingrich, and you can expect his message to remain the same. 

He’s promised he’ll take his campaign to the convention, but for a number of reasons, including his son Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) future ambitions within the party, few expect him to generate serious discord once he’s there.