Jim Wilson braves brisk winds outside a campaign event for Republican presidential… (Erik S. Lesser, EPA )
Reporting from Jacksonville, Fla. — After months of gyrating front-runners and inconclusive voter tests, a victory by Mitt Romney in the looming Florida primary would send the 2012 campaign down a well-worn path — pointing the most established GOP contender toward a highly competitive race against President Obama in the fall election.
If Newt Gingrich wins, the contours of the battle would be radically different: a prolonged intraparty struggle unlike any the GOP has seen in decades, pitting the former House speaker as an insurgent force against many present and former elected officials he once led, with unpredictable consequences in November if he is the nominee.
Romney has, for now at least, pulled ahead of Gingrich in the roller-coaster campaign for Florida. An opinion survey of Florida Republicans, released Friday by Quinnipiac University, showed Romney leading Gingrich by nine points, 38% to 29%. Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum were far back, at 14% and 12%, respectively.
"I think if Romney wins this, it's over for Newt," said John McLaughlin, a veteran Republican pollster who is unaffiliated in the presidential campaign. Looking ahead, Romney has the advantage in the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses and other, largely symbolic contests next month, including a nonbinding Feb. 7 primary in Missouri, where Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot.
The statewide poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday, was the latest indication that Gingrich's surge after his Jan. 21 win in the South Carolina primary had evaporated in this week's summerlike heat. The same survey had Gingrich ahead by six points just after South Carolina voted.
Romney's superior performances in two Florida debates blunted Gingrich's efforts to build on his recent primary success. Earlier nationally televised forums had been crucial to Gingrich's ability to counter Romney's edge in campaign money and organization.
At the same time, Romney and his supporters are using overwhelming force to gain the upper hand in the Florida air war, unleashing a barrage of negative ads that are "just grinding Newt down," McLaughlin said. Members of Congress and other forces in the GOP establishment have fanned out across the state to criticize Gingrich and boost Romney.
Gingrich shrugged off the establishment attacks Friday. "If you're an establishment Republican and you're enjoying life in Washington and you don't mind presiding over the decay, I'm a threat," he told NBC News. "You can tell who they are by how hysterical they get."
Gingrich has come back repeatedly over the course of the campaign. As more conservative candidates have left the race, including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, he has attempted to leverage the energy of the tea party movement and consolidate its backers behind his candidacy.
According to the latest polling, Gingrich leads Romney by a 2-1 margin among tea party supporters in Florida, one of the places where votes by such conservatives helped Republicans gain a breakthrough victory in the 2010 midterm election. But tea party strategists say no presidential candidate yet has been able to gain the permanent allegiance of the movement's voters.
Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, says that if Gingrich were to prevail in Florida, or bounce back in later states, the GOP could wind up with its national convention in Tampa thrown wide open this August, allowing a candidate who isn't even running at the moment to contend for the nomination. But he laughed at the notion of a brutal "Republican Armageddon" sundering the party — pointing out that the Democrats pulled together in 2008 after a long, bitter struggle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
California consultant Sal Russo said that Gingrich "can be a polarizing personality," but he also played down the risk to party unity.
"When I was working for Reagan in 1980, there was so much panic that [Reagan] would be a disaster that a Republican congressman, John Anderson of Illinois, ran as an independent," Russo said. Divisions within today's Republican Party don't come close to the ideological splits of the past, when the party was much less homogeneous. "Goldwater and Rockefeller back in 1964," he said. "Now, that was bloody."
Whether fears of an internal bloodbath are overblown or not, the way the nomination contest plays out will have a direct effect on Republican prospects in November. Continued resistance to Romney from the party's more conservative voters, coupled with a resurgence of the tea party spirit that defeated establishment candidates in 2010 primaries, could produce a Republican ticket that is at a significant disadvantage in the general election.
National polls have yet to reflect the fast-changing primary race in Florida. But those surveys, which still show Gingrich leading, also indicate that Romney performs significantly better against Obama in hypothetical matchups.