Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich now stands in striking distance of taking first place in Florida, riding a wave of momentum following his surprise 12-point victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Saturday's South Carolina primary and a week before the Sunshine State holds its own vote.
In an unusual turn of events, Romney now has to face a resurgent Gingrich in a state where he had previously enjoyed solid support. This appears to have prompted the erstwhile nomination favorite to take off his gloves and stage an onslaught on his main rival, in what may reflect a growing anxiety at the Romney headquarters, just days after analysts predicted the candidate would enjoy an easy glide to the nomination.
But general attacks may not be enough to quash the Gingrich surge. A new Rasmussen Report poll, conducted on Sunday, shows Gingrich garnering 41 percent support among likely Florida GOP primary voters, with only 32% backing his main rival, Romney, who had long been the odds-on favorite to win in the Sunshine State. Just two weeks ago Romney commanded a sizable lead of 22 percentage points over Gingrich. Monday's poll also shows that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, has only 11% support. Texas Rep. Ron Paul trails a distant fourth with only 9%.
Gingrich's national appeal is also on the rise. Romney's 23% lead over Gingrich in the Gallup trend-tracking poll has shrunk to a virtual tie. Twenty-nine percent of registered Republicans or Republican-leaning Independents sampled from across the U.S. said they would back Romney, with a statistically equivalent proportion, 28%, saying they would support Gingrich. A day earlier Romney had a slightly wider advantage of five points.
For Romney, another loss in the populous state of Florida on the heels of his South Carolina thumping could upend the race. Perhaps signaling his modus operandi for the coming days, on Monday he tried to play to the sentiments shared by many in Florida, which is still reeling from the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
In Monday's televised debate in Tampa, Fla., Romney repeatedly raised the issue of Gingrich's past role as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, calling Gingrich an "influence peddler" by supposedly lobbying for the agency after he retired from Congress, and implicitly suggesting that he was involved in its alleged faulty behavior and contributing to the 2008 financial crisis. The federal government eventually bailed out the company for fear its collapse would hurt many Americans who had borrowed from it to help buy their homes.
Gingrich shot back, saying Romney was "walking around this state saying things that aren't true," and later added, "I have never, ever, gone and done any lobbying."
Also on Monday, the Romney campaign released a new batch of ads attacking Gingrich for the profits he made while working for the company, alleging, "While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in."
In a POLITICO analysis on Monday, Jonathan Martin and John F. Harris wrote that Romney's misfortunes on the campaign trail may in fact be traced to the very credentials he is touting.
"Perfect resume, perfect looks, perfect family, and a perfect roster of skilled campaign operatives and blue-chip endorsements: Mitt Romney has them all. Yet he comes out of his drubbing in South Carolina with a perfect problem," they wrote. " Americans may prefer politicians with visible flaws -- outsized appetites and messy scandals like Gingrich and Bill Clinton -- or at least with twisting and improbable personal journeys."
For all his strong points, Romney has yet to translate them into a successful counterattack against Gingrich, they conclude.