After South Carolina, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign decided it was time to change their strategy toward former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It was time to take him out, similar to what they did in Iowa. Take no prisoners, forget Obama for the moment, and direct their fire at Gingrich. Smart strategy? Of course. The only strategy, really, since back-to-back victories in South Carolina and Florida would have been devastating to Romney, certainly in the short term.
But has the Romney camp gone too far?
Now, I am not going to defend Newt Gingrich in the slightest—I am talking tactics here.
Let me first make the argument for the strategy they have adopted. Gingrich is like the Jason character from the Friday the 13th horror movies. He keeps coming back!
He grabs the attention of Tea Party voters and hard-core conservatives and he has shown he can mobilize them. He is colorful and a press magnet. Left unchecked, he has shown that he can move poll numbers in his favor with his debate appearances. Also, he has raised serious money after his victories and rising poll blips, and he has the Adelsons—casino moguls from Nevada—who have put over $10 million into his campaign and can give more out of their petty cash fund. He even eclipsed Romney in national polls.
In short, you ignore Newt at your peril. A failure to engage would have been a disastrous strategy.
Nevertheless, Romney and his Super-PACs have spent $15 million and counting to tear into Gingrich like a pit bull on steroids. They have decided that they will not let up until he is crushed in Florida. This all-or-nothing strategy has a few problems. First, Romney's negative poll numbers have skyrocketed to very damaging levels. He may take Newt out in Florida, but it is costing him big time. Only Sen. John Kerry had net negative numbers at this point in the race and it certainly affected his candidacy. Second, Gingrich is furious and is pulling out all the stops to take on Romney. He has nothing to lose. This is his last campaign and he is all in. It seems Newt wants Mitt's hide almost as much as Obama's.
Finally, though no debates are scheduled until late February, these are moneymakers for the networks, and my guess is someone will attempt to pull several together next month. Gingrich will go back to his plan of fighting Romney with the press and appearances. He has been enraged by Romney's surrogates tailing him and engaging reporters, and he is very likely to adopt the same tactic(as he promised to do against Obama).
Newt sees this as a long slog and he wants to grab as many delegates as he can in these non winner-take-all states, challenge Romney everywhere he is able, and hope that he can secure the nomination in the end. Through all this, former Sen. Rick Santorum hangs in and hopes that he can somehow come up the side, as these two engage in hand-to-hand combat.
The question really is not whether Romney should have taken on Gingrich. He had to, of course. But, given Gingrich's personality and where he is as a candidate, should he have pulled some of the ads and mixed more positive spots in this last week in Florida? Would it have made any difference? Has he bought himself a drubbing of Gingrich and will this either force Newt out or embolden him to fight on? That's hard to know. But my guess is that the over-the-top negative strategy may well come back to haunt Romney. It certainly provides plenty of material for the Obama campaign to use leading up to November.