Gingrich came out of his victory in South Carolina leading in polls but now seems headed for defeat in Florida. Debates boosted him in South Carolina but cut him down in Florida. And it was not just because of his opponents' attacks. In the second debate, he was put on the defensive on two characteristically Gingrichian proposals, one based on his study of history and the other on his penchant for futurism.
His proposal to have local boards, modeled on World War II draft boards, decide on legalization of longtime illegal immigrants put him to the left of Romney on this issue -- and also gave Romney an opportunity to laud legal immigration and to highlight attacks on Gingrich tactics by the technically neutral Sen. Marco Rubio.
And Gingrich's proposal for a moon colony, to be granted statehood when its population reaches 13,000, drew scornful rebukes as impractical and hugely expensive from Romney and Rick Santorum. Neither would have had these openings if Gingrich had resisted the impulse to set out novel proposals.
Romney's rebukes of Gingrich and defense of his business record were his strongest debate performances, and Santorum also performed impressively, especially in criticizing Romney on his Massachusetts health care law.
Romney has led Gingrich by 7 to 9 points in every poll taken since the first Florida debate and looks to be in shape to carry the state and win all its delegates. A victory in Florida would once again install the well-financed and well-organized Romney as the clear favorite for the nomination.
But even in that case, Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul each would have plausible reasons for continuing through the few contests (and one debate) in February.
The race so far has given Romney the opportunity to develop the political instincts that he might have obtained from going door-to-door for votes or interacting with lowly colleagues in a caucus as his three rivals have.
His performances in the two Florida debates show he is making some progress. Not enough to be the ideal nominee, perhaps, but maybe enough to beat an incumbent with serious weaknesses, as well as some strengths.
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