Florida’s primary on Tuesday night will break a three-way tie, as a different winner has emerged in the first three GOP contests. Here’s what to watch for as the returns come in:
1. Will Mitt Romney win by double digits?
Romney has surged in the past week, helped by a barrage of television ads attacking Newt Gingrich in the Sunshine State and some weak performances in debates by Gingrich. Some prominent Republicans, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, are suggesting Romney will be the nominee if he wins the state.
If Romney wins in a rout, Gingrich is going to get pressure to either drop out or stop criticizing Romney as sharply. The situation will resemble what Hillary Clinton faced in 2008 as Barack Obama started consolidating party establishment support. It’s hard to come back without attacking your opponent, but party leaders will start saying Gingrich is hurting Romney’s chances of beating Obama in the general.
2. Will Gingrich change his approach in his concession speech?
The fiery rhetoric of the ex-speaker, from attacking the media to calling President Obama the “food stamp president” really worked in South Carolina. But if he loses badly in Florida, it would suggest that as the Republican primary moves to more moderate states (Arizona and Michigan vote in February), Gingrich may have to shift his tone to win non-Tea Party Republicans.
3. Does Mitt win the “very conservative” and Tea Party vote?
Gingrich is making the case that he is the true conservative in the race and that Romney is winning in part because Gingrich, Paul and Santorum are splitting the conservative vote. (Polls show the Santorum vote splits between Gingrich and Romney in a two-man race, so this is a misleading argument in some ways)
Gingrich’s case would be further weakened if Romney wins the votes of “very conservative” and Tea Party Republicans in Florida. Romney won those blocs in New Hampshire, but lost among those groups in Iowa and South Carolina.
4.Does Romney shift back to his Obama message?
Romney spent most of the campaign focused on Obama and ignoring his rivals but sharply attacked Gingrich as the ex-speaker surged after South Carolina. Is Romney’s victory speech tonight a look towards the general election and Obama or still an appeal to conservatives who might not yet be sold on him?
5. What does Team Obama do?
For the last 10 days, Obama’s campaign has repeatedly highlighted the weakness shown in Romney’s defeat in South Carolina. What do they say now? Romney seems on the verge of a strong victory in Florida.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr