After Florida Primary, What’s Next? 5 Questions Answered

BY Gwen Ifill  February 3, 2012 at 5:00 PM EST

Right after the polls closed Tuesday night and Mitt Romney had been declared the winner of the Florida primary, syndicated columnists and PBS NewsHour contributors David Brooks, Mark Shields and I looked at each other and sighed.

As we prepared for the NewsHour’s 11 p.m. politics special, would we have anything left to say?

Turns out we had plenty.

During Romney’s acceptance speech, he declared he would return to Tampa to accept the Republican Party’s presidential nomination at this summer’s convention. Newt Gingrich, who lost badly to Romney in Florida, pretty much pledged the same thing.

Setting aside whether either man is correct, one thing remains true: The Republican nominating convention is a whopping seven months away, only a tiny number of delegates have been awarded and there are twists and turns ahead.

On Tuesday, I posed five things in this space – five M’s — to watch for coming out of Florida. Herewith, the answers:

1. Margin | The least-surprising element of the evening was the size of the Romney victory — 14-percentage points. Even Gingrich endorser Herman Cain called it a “shellacking.” The most surprising element was Gingrich’s total refusal to acknowledge it. His staff printed up placards with the words “46 States To Go,” even though their boss will not even be on the ballot in all of those states. And when reporters asked what his plan was for the next round of voting in Nevada, Gingrich admitted he had not yet given it any thought. He was leaving for Las Vegas that night.

2. Money | The Romney campaign dumped tens of millions of dollars worth of negative radio and television ads on Gingrich’s head. There was only one pro-Romney ad in that blizzard, and it was a TV ad in Spanish. The latest campaign finance reports show that Romney and his partisans have been banking the resources for such an assault for some months. Unless some finance angel is willing to single-handedly challenge that advantage, it is tough to see how Gingrich or anyone else can counter that kind of negative advertising any time soon. Free media only takes you so far, especially without a nationally televised debate on the docket until Feb. 22.

3. Momentum | Votes beget votes, and money begets money. Looked at this way, it’s hard to argue that Romney has not reclaimed the momentum — and the sense of inevitability — he had a month ago. As House Speaker John Boehner pointed out this week, the 2008 Democratic competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continued months after the earliest primaries ended — to Texas and Ohio. He could still be knocked off course, but for now the former Massachusetts governor has the wind at his back.

4. Mitt | How good a candidate is he? As seems to happen with great regularity, Romney tossed that question into the air again this week. The very next morning after his Florida triumph, he stumbled on his way to the politician’s routine embrace of middle class voters by saying he did not care very much about the poor. What he meant was that he believes there are programs in place to provide for the very poor, but the context was lost. The very next day, he was endorsed by billionaire Donald Trump, and any context was obliterated.

5. Moon colonies | This is my new euphemism for getting off track. Most candidates are pretty good at driving home the same points over and over again, but once in a while they veer drastically off course. This is what happened when Gingrich started telling voters along Florida’s Space Coast that he would invigorate NASA by planning for an American colony on the moon. And if Romney decides to actually take the creatively distracting Trump with him on the campaign trail (not at all a slam dunk), I may yet be taking nominations in this space all week for a new euphemism. Feel free to send them along.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.