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GOP Race Is Now a Tossup

Liberal voters excused Bill Clinton’s peccadillos since they liked his positions on most issues. Religious conservatives seemed willing to ignore Newt Gingrich’s history since they like his anger at the media, and expect him to thrash Barack Obama in presidential debates. One question not posed in the exit poll interviews, since it would likely not be answered honestly, was whether Romney’s Mormon faith was the real turnoff to evangelicals and others who believe a candidate’s religious beliefs matter a great deal.

In any case, all polls in states with upcoming contests, as well as national polls, are now meaningless. Romney held a twenty-point lead over Gingrich in Florida, but that survey was taken before this week’s South Carolina debate. As numbers maven Nate Silver argues, Florida may well be a tossup race after South Carolina. Romney led Gingrich by 37% to 14% at the start of the week, and by 31% to 23% on Saturday. After Gingrich’s big win, the national numbers could well be about even by Monday. There is no reason why Florida would be very far from the national numbers. One factor that favors Romney in Florida is that his organization has encouraged early voting, and Romney may have a big lead among those who have already voted. If everyone else is equally divided between Gingrich and Romney, Romney could win by his early banking of votes in Florida.

Other than a few caucus states, Florida is the last big primary contest for a month. As such, its importance is greatly magnified. Either Romney or Gingrich will carry the winner’s mantle for a month, and this topsy-turvy race, with candidates surging and then dropping off rapidly, will get a breather.

The absence of scheduled debates after Florida will take away what has been Gingrich’s strongest campaign weapon. It also will provide some time for Romney to refocus his campaign, which has been sputtering all week. Romney seemed unprepared to defend his Bain record, and his failure to release his tax returns seemed to suggest to some that he was embarrassed about what was in them. (Note: Romney announced on Sunday morning that he would release his tax returns on Tuesday.)

If Romney becomes the nominee, he will likely not have to deal with the amateurish and wildly inaccurate 27-minute anti-Bain video that Gingrich supporters have run, but he will see clips of Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich attacking Bain, and calling him a vulture capitalist.  Not only has Romney slipped off his glide path to the nomination, but if he becomes the nominee, he will now be much more vulnerable to the inevitable class warfare arguments in the general election.

Newt Gingrich, who has the highest negatives of any GOP candidate among those who are not Republicans (many of whom will need to support a GOP candidate to get that candidate elected), will now have a chance to use his stature as a serious contender to try to smooth out some of the rough edges. The fact is that both Romney and Gingrich now have a real shot at being the nominee. Each has strengths and obvious weaknesses. Their race, which could turn into a regional faceoff of sorts (Gingrich strong in the South, Romney in the North), will not end quickly.