Mitt Romney moved to the right of Newt Gingrich in Florida

Mitt Romney's key in Florida: Being more conservative than Newt Gingrich on immigration, Medicare, and space exploration.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Republican presidential candidateMitt Romney campaigns at Ring Power Lift Trucks in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

If Newt Gingrich loses in Florida today - and, as Decoder wrote this morning, all signs point to a decisive defeat - analysts will undoubtedly point to the impact of money and TV ads. Florida is an extremely expensive state to run in, and Mitt Romney outspent Gingrich there by as much as 5 to 1.

But we’d argue there’s another reason Gingrich has floundered in the Sunshine State: He allowed Romney to get to the right of him politically.

In South Carolina, where Gingrich pulled out a stunning surprise victory over Romney, he did it in part by whipping up a late-crashing wave of conservative support. His attention-grabbing debate exchanges with moderators over hot-button issues - such as whether calling President Obama a “food stamp president” was racist, and his outrage at being asked about his ex-wife’s charge that he wanted an “open marriage” - played into the genuine hostility many base conservatives and tea party sympathizers feel toward the “lamestream” media and the left. 

Significantly, those debate moments also wound up overshadowing the other major narrative in South Carolina - Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital and his taxes - which, while effective in pushing Romney’s unfavorable ratings up, held serious danger for Gingrich, since they brought a slew of criticism from fellow Republicans, who argued he was positioning himself against free enterprise.

And it was that latter dynamic - Gingrich attacking Romney from the left in ways that drew criticism from conservatives, rather than marshaling their support - that actually carried over into Florida. Consider: 

  • On immigration: Gingrich ran a radio ad in Florida accusing Romney of being “the most anti-immigrant candidate” - but was forced to pull it after criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite. When Gingrich tried to defend the charge in last Thursday’s debate, asking Romney how he would characterize deporting “grandmothers” who have been here for years, Romney came back with the zinger: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.” What the base heard: Gingrich wants to let illegal immigrants stay; Romney doesn’t. 
  • On Medicare: When Romney accused Gingrich of lobbying on behalf of healthcare clients for the 2003 prescription-drug program known as Medicare Part D - an unfunded expansion of Medicare that the Congressional Budget Office projects will cost the government more than $16 trillion - Gingrich defended himself by saying he’d always favored “a stronger Medicare program” and added: “I’m proud that I publicly advocated Medicare Part D.” More recently, Gingrich resorted to attacking Romney for cutting Medicare spending on Kosher meals for Jewish seniors during his time as governor of Massachusetts. What the base heard: Gingrich supports extravagant spending on entitlements; Romney doesn’t.
  • On space exploration: In perhaps the most widely-mocked line of the campaign, Gingrich said he would put a base on the Moon and allow the Americans living there to apply for statehood. Romney retorted that if an employee of his had proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars for a Moon colony, he’d tell them they were fired. What the base heard: Gingrich would throw billions of dollars at a pie-in-the-sky idea; Romney wouldn’t.

All these lines were clear efforts by Gingrich to pander to different Florida voting groups: Hispanics, seniors, space-industry employees. But ironically, they also allowed Romney to come across as the more conservative of the two men - and in a GOP primary, conservative usually wins.

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