Florida, Florida, Florida: Why The Sunshine State Is Make-Or-Break Moment for The GOP Primary

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul as they participate in the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times debate held at the University of South Florida on January 23, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
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A win by Newt Gingrich would all but guarantee a long, drawn-out contest. It will legitimize Gingrich as a serious contender (not just a guy who got lucky in South Carolina). It will lead to lots of hand-wringing by GOP leaders. The cable chatterers will be in full-blown bloviate mode about the state of the dysfunction in the Republican Party.

A Romney win doesn't guarantee a quick end to the contest, but it would slow Gingrich's momentum. Other factors that could dampen Newt-mentum include the fact that there's just one debate scheduled for the entire month of February and that there are only caucuses, not primaries, for most of that month.

Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have all but conceded the state to the two frontrunners. Florida is a winner-take-all contest, which means all 50 delegates go to the top vote-getter. There's no incentive to try and battle for third or fourth place. And while both remain committed to staying in the race, it's clear that, for now, the battle for the nomination is a two-man race between Gingrich and Romney.

Current State of Play in Florida

Momentum is Gingrich's best friend. His strong debate performances in South Carolina, where he articulated an energetic anti-establishment message, gave him the momentum needed to overpower Romney's lead in that state. The momentum from his 12-point victory in South Carolina has propelled Gingrich into a statistical dead heat with Romney in Florida.

The big question now is if Gingrich can keep this momentum going for another week. On Tuesday, Gingrich was drawing huge crowds -- including an event in Naples that drew 5,000 people and even caused serious traffic delays.

But Romney insiders believe the polls show a slight trend in their direction. Romney's strong performance (and Gingrich's flat one) in Monday's NBC debate is one likely reason. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released Tuesday afternoon showed a 16-point surge for Gingrich over the last week in the Sunshine State, putting the two candidates in a statistical tie with Romney at 36 percent and Gingrich at 34 percent.

Yet there was also evidence that Newt-mentum may be ebbing. In interviews with voters on Sunday, Gingrich was leading Romney 38 percent to 32 percent. But in interviews with voters on Monday and Tuesday (i.e., post debate), Romney was ahead by nine points (38 percent to 29 percent).

Even so, the volatility of this year's campaign season makes the Romney folks feel this is no slam-dunk. They need to have a strong week and, most importantly, a strong debate tonight in Jacksonville, Fla.

How Did We Get Here?

Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was the all-but-anointed nominee. Today, GOP insiders see a pathway for a Newt nomination. How on Earth did this happen?

The best explanation I've heard comes from a GOP strategist who has been very active in both the "establishment" and Tea Party worlds.

"Reaction to Obama created the Tea Party," this strategist said. "The Tea Party created the energy that led to the 2010 results. The 2010 results led to the unforgiving primary electorate of 2012, and that has led to Newt. "

What Happens Next?

As ABC News' Jake Tapper wrote this week, "A combination of an elongated schedule, new Republican National Committee rules, and some quirks of fate have diminished the importance of individual contests and reduced the ability for knock-out punches."

Bottom line: Given the fact that there are very few "winner-take-all" contests, no candidate is likely to hit 1,144 delegates (the number needed to win the nomination) before June.

That said, if Gingrich loses Florida, it's going to be harder for him to regain the physical and psychological momentum that has sustained him to this point. After Florida, there are no primaries until Michigan and Arizona hold theirs on Feb. 28th. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 28, seven states or territories -- Nevada, Maine, Minnesota, Wyoming, Colorado and Guam (yes, Guam) -- hold caucuses. Caucuses require lots of organization and effort. That should benefit the Romney campaign.

Gingrich also draws a lot of energy from debates. But, as of now, there is only one debate between the end of this week and the end of February. Gingrich will likely call for more debates (and some of the cable outlets are sure to oblige). But, again, timing will also be very important. A debate held a few days before a primary has staying power. A debate held two weeks before a primary -- not so much.

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