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Newt Gingrich’s fast Florida fade is the latest indication that the Tea Party is losing its grip on the GOP, with the establishment poised to triumph once again.An official endorsement Saturday night from last year’s Tea Party standout, Herman Cain; an all-but-official backing from longtime Tea Party darling Sarah Palin; and the support of the Tea Party Express have not lifted Gingrich back over Mitt Romney in the Florida polls. That weakened clout has been accompanied by the Republican establishment’s full-throttle charge at Gingrich’s past — to great effect with the primary here just one day away.
It’s a stunning twist of fate for the GOP, which just 18 months ago was mired in intraparty battles that gave rise to the grass-roots movement, and which had been desperately seeking anyone but Mitt Romney in the presidential race to satisfy its hard-right turn. Still, if Romney wins here on Tuesday and goes on to clinch the nomination in the coming weeks or months, it may not settle the question of whether he has quieted the Tea Party faithful heading toward the general election.
Its various favourites have failed to take hold. Michele Bachmann was ultimately not seen as credible, Cain was forced out of the race over charges of sexual harassment, and Rick Perry couldn’t pass muster through the debates.
Though Gingrich has embraced the Tea Party — and many of its leaders have hugged him back — he doesn’t fit the movement’s mould. The Romney campaign knows this and has had no qualms about highlighting that fact.
From former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP presidential nominee in 1996, to Sen. John McCain, the standard bearer in 2008, a growing number of Republican “insiders” have blasted Gingrich for his slip-ups and judgment lapses during his reign as House speaker.
That would be a risky strategy if Gingrich were a tried-and-true Tea Party candidate who hadn’t spent his time currying favour with Washington’s elite. When the establishment pounded candidates like Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, it backfired, and they won their primaries against Republican officeholders.
And yet, Romney has unleashed every surrogate he’s got to clamp down on Gingrich. McCain, when asked Friday by RealClearPolitics if Romney risked a backlash by employing this strategy, answered, “I think that’s always a risk, but once the Tea Partiers examine his fiscal record, then it’s very hard to get enthusiastic about a guy that supported a bill that had $14 billion in earmarks.”
That’s the difference: The establishment harangued O’Donnell, Paul and Herman Cain for being unqualified, even eccentric. But with Gingrich, “Washington insiders” are reminding everyone that he’s one of them.
Romney himself pointed that out during a Panama City rally Saturday afternoon, noting that Gingrich “was given the opportunity to lead our party.” An audience member shouted back, “He failed.” And Romney responded: “You’re right; he failed. We allowed him to lead our party, and some of us remember, ‘Oh, yeah — the ‘Contract With America,’ that was a good thing. We took over the House — that was great news.’ But what happened four years later? He was fined for ethics violations.”
Romney’s campaign has made Gingrich’s time in Washington the centrepiece of its attacks, even using a 1997 news report from the dean of the current news media, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, that detailed Gingrich’s ethics violations in an ad released late Friday.
Brokaw issued a statement (buttressed by one from NBC News) urging that the ad be pulled, but the campaign refused, drawing a weekend’s worth of attention to the charges uttered by one of the most respected names in the news business — an added bit of irony given the mileage Gingrich has gotten from his biting attacks on the media.
Along with those media blitzes, Romney’s established organisation here has helped blunt the grass-roots momentum Gingrich drew from his victory in South Carolina. Yard signs promoting the former Massachusetts governor are everywhere in this state, even hundreds of miles from where his events have been held. Gingrich signs are harder to come by.
The same is true for Rick Santorum, who was forced to leave the campaign trail over the weekend. He had already planned to go home to Pennsylvania to release his tax returns, but his campaign announced Saturday night that his daughter Isabella had been hospitalized back home, meaning Santorum had to break from campaigning early for family reasons.
Gingrich and Santorum have been keeping fuller schedules than Romney since the campaigns descended on the Sunshine State. But a full schedule didn’t help Romney back in his 2008 quest for the nomination, so the campaign didn’t replicate that model this time. Instead, it has tailored events to key industries and demographic groups. In Panama City, hundreds of voters gathered at a shipbuilding facility to hear the candidate talk of job creation and his desire to increase the number of ships deployed by the Navy.
Gingrich’s packed schedule has created complications for the campaign: Some stops have been dropped at the last minute, and he showed up to an Orlando event more than an hour late on Saturday.
And now, just four days after he was leading Romney in a pair of polls, surveys show Gingrich may be headed for a decisive loss to his chief rival.
Nevertheless, Gingrich has been defiant and maintains he will keep running all the way to the convention. He pointed out that if his support is combined with Santorum’s, one of them will be able to overcome Romney.
But Santorum has no plans to abandon the race any time soon; his campaign advised late Sunday that the candidate will campaign in Missouri and Minnesota on Monday, and in Colorado and Nevada on Tuesday.
But Santorum, who is not calling to upend the tax code, as the other candidates have done, also doesn’t fit the Tea Party mould. And he too spent time in Senate leadership before losing his seat in 2006.
Ron Paul has faded from view here, campaigning instead in Maine, and his support in the polls has dropped. After finishing with more than a fifth of the vote in Iowa, he’s pulling only a tenth in Florida polling.
The establishment has done major damage to the current and former Washington lawmakers who hoped to gain Tea Party support. It remains to be seen, though, whether the wind is fully out of the Tea Party’s sails. If Ron Paul were to stage a third-party run, it could be re-energized.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.