After a stunning and sweeping loss last night in South Carolina, can Mitt Romney find a way back to his perch as the undisputed front-runner and likely GOP nominee? Or has Newt Gingrich finally found the winning formula for getting - and staying - on top of this volatile primary process?
The Romney team loves to highlight the fact that they have money and infrastructure on their side. And, in a state as big and expensive as Florida, that's not nothin'. But, as Romney discovered in Iowa and South Carolina, money can't buy you love - or a win.
Here are three keys that will determine whether Mitt can be the comeback kid, or if he'll be the guy who once again came oh-so-close to the nomination, just to lose again.
1) Don't allow Newt Gingrich to become the populist crusader. Gingrich did a masterful job in the South Carolina debates and on the Sunday shows this morning of casting himself as the anti-establishment,anti-Washington outsider. This is quite a remarkable feat, given Gingrich's 20 years in Congress and his time spent post-Congress making money off his connections to those very elites he now rails against.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken a week before the South Carolina primary found that Republicans saw Gingrich's work "as a consultant for companies with an interest in federal policymaking" to be much more unfavorable than Romney's work "buying and restructuring companies." Overall, 51 percent of GOP voters saw Gingrich's work as a "consultant" as negative compared to 29 percent who saw Romney's past business record as unfavorable.
In other words, Gingrich's populist message is spot on. His problem is that he's a very flawed messenger.
2) Stop using establishment politicians to attack Gingrich. Romney and his allies want to cast Gingrich as erratic and undisciplined, while trying to turn Romney's own boringness and lack of pizazz into an asset. The message: Serious times deserve a serious candidate. But, the messengers are as important as the ultimate message. For an electorate already soured and skeptical about all things Washington, using members or former members of Congress as attack dogs is counterproductive and could even help Gingrich polish his outsider bonafides.
3) Let Newt be Newt. As we've seen in the past, Gingrich is his greatest asset and his own worst enemy. He was polished and poised during the last two debates, but can he stay focused and practice that message discipline for another 10 days? How about for another 10 weeks? Gingrich is also a much more polarizing figure than Romney. In that January ABC News/Washington Post poll, 23 percent of Republicans said they would definitely not support Gingrich for the nomination. Just 8 percent said that about Romney.
Gingrich has proven to be the Lazarus of 2012, reminding us time and again not to underestimate his impressive political skills. The question now is whether he will have the stamina to stand on his feet long enough to make this latest rise from the dead more than just an apparition.