All three of Mitt Romney’s rivals are pledging to continue their campaigns despite the former governor’s blowout Florida win, defying the desire of some party leaders to close ranks and start focusing on President Obama.
Rep. Ron Paul and former senator Rick Santorum have already started campaigning in states that will vote in February. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also said he will not step aside, despite losing by double digits in the Sunshine State.
Gingrich and Santorum will be emboldened by the fact that in Florida Gingrich outdid Romney among Tea Party Republicans and those call themselves “very conservative.” Both are trying to cast Romney as insufficiently conservative to be the GOP nominee.
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But his easy win in Florida, by far the largest and most diverse of the early primary states, strongly reaffirms Romney’s status as the front-runner in the Republican race.
And pressure could build for the other Republicans to quit, as Romney is likely to have a very strong February. The six states that will vote over the next month include Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada, states Romney won in 2008, and Michigan, where Romney also won four years ago and has roots, as his father was once the state’s governor.
Arizona, the other state having a primary, is not full of the evangelical and Tea Party conservatives who have lifted Santorum and Gingrich. The best chance for one of his rivals to win a primary over the next month is probably Paul in Maine, where the congressman can tap into a Republican Party with many libertarians.
Another challenge for Romney’s rivals is the lack of debates. For Gingrich and Santorum, the debates put them on equal footing with Romney, who is far more organized and well-financed. But there are no debates scheduled until Feb. 22.
Romney’s rivals may not have a chance to break through until March 6, when seven states hold primaries. Gingrich and Santorum could have more appeal in those states, which include Gingrich’s home state of Georgia as well as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, all places with large blocs of Tea Party and very conservative voters.
Romney could have a lot of momentum heading into March, but the day of primaries on March 6 is likely to keep his rivals in the contest for another month. That will limit the ability of Romney to start leading the party into the fall contest against Obama.