The results in Florida were even better for Mitt Romney than most of the wildly swinging polls said they would be. With 100 percent of the vote in the Republican primary in, he was getting almost half of it -- 46 percent in a four-man field. And this in the first state to vote that actually reflects the American electorate, for Florida is big and diverse and unpredictable and dynamic. It's not just a swing state but the swing state in presidential elections.
Mitt Romney had a nice win Tuesday. His closest rival, the ever-bobbing-up Newt Gingrich, ran a poor second with only 32 percent of the vote. It should have been a magical moment for Mr. Romney. But where was the magic?
Mitt Romney's long, slow transformation from business to political leader continues, and he's showing great improvement. Having lost the Republican primary in South Carolina, when Newt Gingrich's debating skills still shone, he won the debates in Florida with a new ease and finesse. The man always looked presidential; in these debates he sounded presidential. And proceeded to win the election. Big.
Yet his victory resembled a well-run board meeting more than a political breakout. His victory speech offered a memorable insight or two. (A "competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.") But the speech as a whole was as charisma-less as he is.
Mr. Romney may be mastering the mechanics of a successful presidential campaign, but not the essence: the magical touch that makes a campaign more than a campaign but a cause. He may have the words, but not the music. Right now he's about as rousing as a sedate trio playing at a tea dance.
He's the front-runner in the primaries for the moment, the polls indicate he's got the best chance by far of any Republican to win the White House come November, but he doesn't appeal to the ideologues in his party. He lacks sufficient zeal. And may never have it. He's an accountant, an executive, a businessman, a rational human being, not an ideologue.
In this year's GOP primaries, Ron Paul is the designated true believer. It remains to be seen whether he'll play the spoiler's role as third-party candidate come the general election -- the GOP's own Ralph Nader. He may be far removed from winning the Republican nomination, but not as far as he is from political reality.
As for the irrepressible, incorrigible, unpredictable Newt Gingrich, he's now gone from a super-sized charmer with just the right combination of grace and zing, a political version of old Jackie Gleason hoofing with impressive ease, to just another irascible old man reciting excuses for a long chain of defeats and looking for others to blame.
The Newt has been a Comeback Kid so many times that he's become more of a Comeback Geezer. He may yet pull victory out of his capacious hat this time out. ("Forty-six states to go!") But that seems improbable, if not impossible, at this ebb of his political fortunes. It may yet occur to his still large but dwindling number of fans that one reason he's had so many comebacks is that he's had so many failures -- political, marital and ethical.
Is this the time he'll fall and not be able to get up? If so, he'll have a lot excuses to offer. His concession speech Tuesday night was full of them: He was defeated by Big Money! Which sounds like something remarkably out of the Marxist hymnal for a defender of free enterprise to say. They lied about me! And even worse, though he didn't say it, they may have told the truth about him. Naturally, he forgot to congratulate his victorious opponent.
Concession speeches are the most interesting, most telling part of a political campaign. They offer the greatest insight into a candidate's character, his grace under pressure or lack of same. They are the test of a candidate's mettle, and Newt Gingrich failed it Tuesday night.
The one candidate who seems to have won the respect of all the others, and maybe the country's, too, is Rick Santorum, who has conducted himself as both a gentleman and man of principle, which is never easy in politics. His campaign has yet to catch fire, but that may be more a reflection of the times than on him.
If he leaves the race, or rather when he leaves the race, he will come away with much more than a political victory -- his good name and sense of honor. He will have run his race and kept the faith.