This is it. The final debate before Florida will be tonight from Jacksonville, FL on CNN. It may be the final debate of the primary season. If it becomes just Mitt, Newt, and Ron, there is no way that MItt Romney will want to share the stage with them after tonight.I'll be on CNN for post debate coverage, though I'll be in Atlanta tonight. All you need to know is that the latest CNN poll has something like a 22 point swing toward Newt Gingrich, but a lot of post South Carolina polling settled back down from irrational exuberance to Romney still ahead.Tonight, expect a concerted Romney effort to bring out the really angry Newt. Expect Gingrich to try to throw off Romney. In fact, we may not hear from Santorum and Paul unless they get called on. This is all the Mitt and Newt show. They don't like each other and both have a lot on the line.One wild card factor — does Rick Santorum stay in? There are rumors circulating he may drop out before Florida because he is out of money. His campaign says no. But we'll see. If he leaves, polls show most of his voters go to Gingrich, but I'm not sure that's actually right.We'll get into it all below the fold.
Gingrich must perform well tonight in the debate. Debates help Gingrich with momentum and the NBC debate has not fully been factored into polling. He did not do well in that debate. He must shine tonight and he'll have an audience to help him along.But it is not just polling and I think a lot of people have been complicit in saying "debates won it" when there is more to the story.I've talked to a number of people in South Carolina and they are all stunned at how the press has missed the story about the Newt v. Romney ground game in South Carolina. According to a number of people I and others have talked to, Newt relied on the traditional grassroots network in South Carolina, outsourcing it to the Speaker, various sheriffs, etc.Romney's campaign bussed in volunteers from out of state including a heavy contingent from Brigham Young and they were sign holders and phone bankers, but they didn't do traditional GOTV operations.I think the polling bears out this reality.In my experience from running campaigns, a well run campaign can match its polling. A well run campaign with well run GOTV can exceed its polling. A well run campaign with a poorly run GOTV operation will never reach its polling. This bears out time and time again in campaigns.If we look at South Carolina, the final RCP Average was Newt at 33.5% and Romney at 28.5%.The final results were Newt at 40.4% and Romney at 27.8%. Debate performance cannot explain Newt topping the polling average by 6.9%. The only thing that really explains it is ground game getting the people wowed by the debate performance to the polls.In Florida, Newt needs a good ground game, not just good debate performances. His related Super PAC has some heavy lifting to do.
Ron Paul will not be the nominee and does not expect to be the nominee. But he is going to do better than many have expected and he'll get a prime spot at the Republican National Convention to bore us all with Austrian economics.
It is his race to lose. If he wins in Florida, the conventional wisdom will be that he is the nominee. The races after Florida up to Super Tuesday favor Mitt Romney, including Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan. But Gingrich will have Georgia on Super Tuesday and they'll be able to fight over the rest.Romney is on all the ballots, has the most money, and has the best organization. But the Republican base continues to bristle. If he cannot win Florida, he cannot win the nomination. There is much at stake in tonight's CNN debate and there is much at stake for Romney on Tuesday. He's the favorite to win, but Newt can draw it close.One good thing for Romney — he is better at throwing Newt off his game in a debate than Newt is at throwing Mitt off his game.
He will not be the nominee. He is out of money. He cannot put in the time in Florida or elsewhere that he put in in all 99 counties in Iowa. There are rumors he may drop out.Santorum's support, polls suggest, would go to Newt. I think it would probably be a wash, which is an advantage to Romney. There'd be one less guy fighting him and when forced to confront Newt Gingrich's personal issues, a lot of Santorum's support would slowly shift to Mitt Romney or stay home. That's all Romney needs.There is an effort to keep Santorum in the race out of Washington on the theory that he keeps Gingrich from consolidating conservatives. That is the most likely scenario. The question for Santorum is who does he want as his nominee. If we wants MItt, he stays in. If he wants Newt, he gets out. Ultimately though, I still think his supporters trickle to Mitt. Maybe not in Florida, but I think it happens even with Gingrich still in the race.