By DAVID ESPO, Associated Press
Newt Gingrich leads the competition for comebacks with two in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He'll need one more, and soon, if he's going to make good on his vow to remain a credible contender until the party convention next summer.
With a lopsided loss to Mitt Romney in the Florida primary on Tuesday night, the former House speaker is looking at a potentially bleak and even winless February as the prelude to Super Tuesday on March 6.
He confronts a significant disadvantage in campaign funding and the appearance of a gender gap in the polls in Florida, where he trailed the winner by nearly 20 points among women. Romney has grown more polished and confident in debates, while Gingrich faces a struggle to regain the discipline that helped carry him to an upset victory in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
The former House speaker acknowledged little or none of this in a speech to a smallish crowd in Orlando, Fla., following his drubbing.
"I think Florida did something very important, coming on top of South Carolina. It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate," he said.
Actually, Florida Republicans gave Romney about 46 percent of the vote. It was the largest percentage captured by any contender so far in the four states that have voted in the GOP race. Ominously for Gingrich, it was also close to a majority, a threshold that would debunk his oft-repeated observation that the former Massachusetts governor loses more votes than he wins.
Despite the obstacles, Gingrich has shown ample evidence of the political skill that once made him speaker of the House, an achievement no one in his party had managed for 40 years.
Twice, his campaign has appeared to run aground: last summer, and again in the two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
The first time, he lost the services of virtually all of his senior staff in a mass resignation.
For them, the last straw was when Gingrich and his wife, Callista, embarked on a vacation cruise to the Greek Isles at a time the campaign was desperately short of money.
With characteristic bravado, he announced he had decided not to run a consultant-centric campaign. "I am very different than normal politicians, and normal consultants found that very hard to deal with," said the man who made sure he had a phalanx of them when he was speaker, protecting the GOP majority in the House.
Tom Perdue, a Republican strategist from Gingrich's old home state of Georgia, had a different view. "It's not uncommon for a candidate to become delusional and that's what I think you are seeing here."
Gingrich fashioned his first comeback over months as others rose in the polls to challenge Romney, then fell back. He shone in debates, occasionally stepping in like something of a GOP father figure, scolding his squabbling rivals and reminding them that the objective was to defeat Barack Obama.
By late December, he had reemerged as the biggest threat to Romney in the Iowa caucuses.
Then the attack ads began, financed by Restore Our Future, an outside organization set up to aid the former Massachusetts governor.
Lacking the funds to respond on his own — the reason his campaign nearly collapsed in the first place — and without an outside group to aid him, Gingrich announced he would run a "relentlessly positive" campaign.
It was an impossible pledge from a man whose political style has been defined by combativeness in a career that spans three decades.
And within days, he proved it.
"I don't object to being outspent. I object to lies. I object to negative smear campaigns," he told reporters.
Relentless, yes. But positive?
To the dismay of aides, he took the bait, and lashed out at Romney rather focusing on Obama. "I think these guys hire consultants who get drunk, sit around and write stupid ads," he said at one point of his rivals, speaking less-than-presidentially.
Leading in Iowa polls in mid-December, he faded to a distant fourth behind Rick Santorum, Romney and Ron Paul.
He attacked Romney even more harshly in the days leading to the New Hampshire primary, where he finished far back.
Improbably, he bounced back in South Carolina, benefitting from what looked like a brilliantly scripted debate-night burst of outrage over an interview ABC News conducted with an ex-wife in the hours leading up to the primary.
Romney stumbled through the week, and paid a heavy price.
"If I win here I will win the nomination," Gingrich told at least one audience in South Carolina.
But not with Florida in his column.
Romney and Restore Our Future hammered him once more, outspending him and an outside group set up to help him by a margin of roughly 5-1 on television ads.
The former Massachusetts governor improved his debate performance, and dispatched campaign surrogates to trail Gingrich.
By late last week, Gingrich was visibly struggling to avoid taking the bait once more.
At a news conference, he turned aside a chance to criticize Romney, saying, "I want to talk about defeating Obama."
Within minutes, his tone changed abruptly after he said he wasn't happy with his performances in a pair of debates during the week. Asked to explain, he said:
"You cannot debate somebody who is dishonest. You just can't."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.
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