Mitt Goes Negative

Mitt Romney galloped to victory in Florida, but it was an expensive coup. He took a hit at the bank, outspending his rivals. He also paid a political price. Romney landed a devastating blow to Gingrich’s candidacy, but the bruise from the fight remains, and it may sting as he scrambles to assert himself as the probable nominee.

Conservatives, already skeptical of Romney’s politics, are grumbling about his internecine aggression. Granted, Gingrich is hardly an angel, and simmering discomfort over Romney’s ruthlessness will not derail him. But a growing unease with Romney’s big-dollar blitz may stir sympathy for Gingrich and encourage the former House speaker to carry on with vengeance.

Speaking to supporters on Monday, Gingrich was defiant. Enraged by Romney’s “dishonest” television ads, he pledged to stay in the hunt until the convention, almost out of spite. “What a pathetic situation to be running for president of the United States with nothing positive to say for yourself,” he said, scowling.

Romney backers may chuckle at Gingrich’s umbrage, but the heated rhetoric is more than the groaning ire of Florida’s silver medalist. It is, of course, part that, but it is also a symptom of Romney’s calculated antagonism.

Remember, in Florida, Team Romney didn’t just knock Gingrich; they aired an ad that selectively documented the Georgian’s past. Citing ethics allegations, they tarred Gingrich as a “disgraced” speaker, but they neglected to mention that Gingrich was later exonerated by the IRS.

The Sunshine State slams kept coming. Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac as a “historian,” enough to sour any Florida homeowner, was complemented by 30-second spots calling Gingrich “chaotic” and “unreliable.” On the stump, Romney called Gingrich a “pinball machine.” At debates he called him an “influence peddler.”

“When attacked, you have to respond,” Romney explained earlier today. “It would be wonderful if campaigns were nothing but positive, but that’s certainly not the reality.”

One can argue whether those actions were “negative” or fair punches in a rough-and-tumble contest. But as the primary moves west and the field remains the same, the consequences of Romney’s Florida brawl are unpredictable.

If Romney isn’t careful, a wounded, bloodied Gingrich may be more dangerous than a slow Gingrich fade.

“When Gingrich sees his poll numbers drop, he starts to vibrate,” says Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant. “You saw that at the end of the Iowa campaign, and Romney’s advisers took advantage of it in Florida.”

Romney’s challenge, Murphy says, is pivoting toward general-election themes while fending off Gingrich in the remaining primaries. That won’t be easy, he says, especially since Gingrich is eager to stay in the race.

“The war in Florida was great for Romney winning the primary,” Murphy says. “It wasn’t great for winning Florida in the fall. There has been collateral damage.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, shows Romney’s favorability among independents eroded. In November, he was rated negatively by 22 percent of independents; in January, 42 percent of independents rated him negatively — a 20-point jump.

If Gingrich continues to lob potshots Romney’s way and the primary becomes an intraparty mess, the potential for Romney’s favorability numbers to sink is palpable.

Still, some Republicans shrug when asked about the fisticuffs between the two leading contenders. “The thing I’ve been watching is Obama’s polling,” says Ed Goeas, a top GOP pollster. “Throughout this whole back and forth, his numbers have not been getting better. For Republicans, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Indeed, as Romney said tonight, addressing his cheering supporters, “a competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.” If he’s right, Florida will have been a tumultuous stepping stone. If not, his negative ads, along with Gingrich’s barbs, may be only the start of an extended, bitter battle.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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