Mitt Romney’s vanquished Florida rivals appear to be inspired by Yogi Berra, the renowned philosopher who once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”Having been thoroughly waxed in the Sunshine State last night, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul are vowing to soldier on deep into the spring season. Newt says he’s “going all the way” – an unfortunate choice of words, coming from him – but heartfelt nonetheless, given his thirst to personally avenge Romney’s insults in the tradition of Michael Corleone.So, the big questions: How long will this race go on? And if it goes and goes, what are the odds that Romney will be irreparably damaged by his foes?The political graveyard is filled with dead people who had promised to keep fighting, only to swiftly snuff themselves when the heat was on. I’m therefore tempted to dismiss Newt’s Churchillian pledge to fight Romney and never surrender; and to roll my eyes at the new Newt placard, “46 States To Go.” Newt doesn’t have the requisite money and grassroots resources for a long war, he’ll be on fumes this month in key states like Nevada and Arizona – and even though he’s hoping to reboot on March 6 (the southern-fried Super Tuesday), his dysfunctional failure to make the ballot in his adopted state of Virginia is now more disastrous than ever. He’s running on empty, to borrow a phrase from singer-songwriter Jackson Browne: “…running blind/ running into the sun/ but I’m running behind.”But ego is a powerful accelerant, especially for a guy who says he’s been thinking Deep Thoughts about America “since the fall of 1958.” (Such were his words last night, during a delusional concession speech in which he failed to mention or congratulate Romney.) Plus, there is still a small window of opportunity. The talk-radio wing of the Republican party is still hostile to Romney – it will not be swayed by the decisiveness of the Florida verdict – and Newt might be able to surf that hostility for weeks on end. As former McCain ’08 strategist Steve Schmidt predicted last night, the right-wing radio jocks “are going to step up the attacks (on Romney), and it’ll be a bloodbath…a campaign of absolute destruction.”We’ll see about that. Nevertheless, it’s indisputable that Romney is still vulnerable on his right flank. While he won big in Florida, many in the GOP base remain wary. According to the exit polls, 33 percent of the Republican voters called themselves “very conservative,” and, among those folks, Newt topped Mitt by 12 percentage points. Thirty five percent of the voters said they “strongly support” tea-party principles, and, among those folks, Newt topped Mitt by 12. Twenty one percent of the voters said abortion should always be illegal, and, among those folks, Newt topped Mitt by 13. Moreover, 41 percent of the voters said that Mitt isn’t conservative enough, 38 percent said they’d still like to see somebody else join the race, and 31 percent said they’d be dissatisfied if Mitt is the nominee.So if Newt (presumably with a fresh cash infusion from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson) can hang in there, and if Santorum can find a way to stay alive (without attacking Romney too harshly, since he pines to be Mitt’s running mate), there is still a sizable Mitt-averse constituency within the GOP. And Mitt knows this. Indeed, he sought last night in his victory speech to woo that constituency by serving up the kind of slop that the rabid right loves best: a reference to President Obama “in the faculty lounge” (this, from a guy with two Harvard degrees); a reference to Obama’s “policy of appeasement of apology” (talking about a president who has whacked the top al Qaeda players, and never apologized for America); and a lament that Obama represents “the worst of what Europe has become” (it’s not enough to hate our enemies, we apparently have to fear our friends as well).Short of converting the conservative holdouts to his cause, Romney figures to simply grind them down week by week until his win is assured. He has the money and resources to do so. The question is whether he can do it without winning ugly. If Newt in particular stays in the race and manages to rack up some late victories (as upstart Ted Kennedy did in his 1980 grudge match with President Carter; as upstart Ronald Reagan did in his quixotic 1976 contest with President Ford), Romney may have to stay in negativity mode far longer than he ideally intends. National polls show has already lost ground among swing-voting independents, a byproduct of his negative assault on all things Newt.Yes, it’s true that the Democrats won the White House in ’08 despite the Obama-Clinton battle that raged until the first week of June. But that contest was never as personal and toxic as Romney-Gingrich. In ’08, there was no equivalent of Newt calling Mitt a lying vulture capitalist, and Mitt calling Newt a lying, erratic, unstable lobbyist. Most importantly, the Democratic convention featured a Hillary Clinton speech that called for unity. The Republican nightmare is that a vanquished Newt will call for unity (sort of), then proceed to deliver a red-meat convention speech that overshadows Romney – much the way vanquished Pat Buchanan trumped the senior President Bush at the national confab in ’92.So can Mitt win this thing on his terms, or will he have to win ugly? Which road will the Republicans ultimately travel – high or low? Only Yogi Berra knows for sure. As he has famously advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”——-
Meanwhile, Romney sparked a mini-tempest this morning when he said on CNN, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” The remark doesn’t seem nearly as heartless when viewed in full context, but he’s still being attacked for what he said – by conservatives. The Weekly Standard assails him for sounding “incredibly tone deaf,” and for ignoring conservative ideas that are aimed at helping the very poor. All told, this is fresh evidence that Mitt still has much work to do on his right flank.
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