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“Mr. Lincoln-Douglas” Fades in Florida

The latest polls of likely Republican voters in Florida confirm the trend that started earlier this week: Mitt Romney seems to be set for a resounding win in Tuesday’s primary. All of the six most recent surveys conducted  show Romney with a large lead over Newt Gingrich. The only difference among them is how big, with Public Policy Polling’s numbers released yesterday showing Romney with an 8-point lead and Rasmussen’s survey published the same day giving him a whopping 16-point advantage. In a highly volatile race that had seemed to be trending to Gingrich after his big win in South Carolina last week, there’s no doubt the pendulum has swung back to Romney.

While both sides of what has become a two-man race have been slinging abuse at each other via super PAC-funded ads, the main factor that has given Romney an advantage was the two televised debates that took place this week. Gingrich’s candidacy was based more or less on the idea that he was the champion debater of the field who was the only Republican that could take on President Obama in the fall in such a forum and beat him. But after being knocked around himself this week by both Romney and Rick Santorum, the notion of Gingrich as Mr. Lincoln-Douglas has been badly undermined. Though conservatives may still not trust Romney, his new more aggressive approach has at least given more of them confidence in his candidacy as well as showing that Gingrich’s preferred tactic of bullying moderators has stopped working.

A defeat in Florida isn’t necessarily fatal for Gingrich. Thanks to some large donors — principally casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — he has enough money to continue. But a bad defeat in Florida, the first big state with a varied population to vote, is an ominous portent of what is likely to happen elsewhere in the country.

Even more importantly, there are no more debates scheduled until later in February. The last time there was a gap in the debate schedule back in December, Gingrich’s first surge in the polls collapsed. Though, as Nate Silver points out in the New York Times, the upcoming caucus states that hold elections in February will be tricky for Romney, he will be the heavy favorite everywhere. But with no upcoming debates and no states coming up in which he will have any advantage, it’s difficult to see how Gingrich can recover from his current predicament.


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