As the bare-knuckled brawl dubbed "Armageddon" intensifies like a category five hurricane, the current polling ahead of Florida's January 31 Republican nominating contest indicates that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are locked in a tight contest. The intensity of the campaigning suggests that both are treating next week's contest as a death match.
A loss in Florida would certainly be a devastating blow for Romney and could send the Republic establishment into a Chernobyl-like meltdown, possibly even scrambling to find a replacement candidate at the last minute, as former McCain presidential campaign adviser Steve Schmidt and others have suggested. And while many on the liberal left would love to see chaos ensue among the right, the reality of the situation is that Romney, whose campaign is fashioned for the long haul, can technically afford to suffer another defeat in this round, whereas for Gingrich, losing in Florida could put him down for the count.
Coming out of South Carolina last weekend, Gingrich had essentially burned through most of his resources. True, the momentum from Gingrich's South Carolina victory has afforded him the opportunity to accumulate a significant amount of new campaign capital, including a second $5 million infusion to the Gingrich aligned Super-PAC, Winning Our Future, courtesy of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson's family. But the former House speaker will likely need all of these newfound resources and more given the daunting landscape he faces in Florida.
There are reports that Romney has already accumulated a sizeable lead in the Sunshine State, thanks to absentee ballots and early voting that took place in the state prior to Gingrich's decisive win in South Carolina. Gingrich is also not aided by the fact that Romney has systematically flooded Florida's 10 media markets with ads. And while it is true that only a small percentage of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination have been allocated, it doesn't help Gingrich that Florida and its 50 delegates are a winner-take-all proposition rather than a proportionally allocated outcome.
For these reasons, Florida is a defining moment for Gingrich's presidential bid. As ABC News's Michael Falcone and Amy Walter are quick to note,
Winning the top prize [in Florida] means more than just delegates. It will show unmistakable momentum heading into the rest of the primary season and could go a long way toward sealing the deal for either one of the contenders.
As a neutral observer, I am not naïve enough to think that winning in Florida will seal the nomination for Gingrich—in fact, not by a long shot. But win or lose in the Sunshine State, Gingrich will have again seriously depleted his campaign resources, and the momentum that comes with victory will go a long way to replenishing his campaign coffers, much to the chagrin of Team Romney.
Should Gingrich lose Florida, he will be low on resources and heading into a series of contests that do not appear to be very favorable for the former House speaker either. The Nevada caucus, considered to be a Romney stronghold, is next on the docket followed by Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota. I'd add Missouri to this list, but Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in this nonbinding contest.
There may not be ropes and turnbuckles around the stage for tonight's debate in Jacksonville, Fla., but the candidates and the audience are sure to have an intensity that will rival a WWE SmackDown event.