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News Analysis

A drawn-out negative race could imperil Republicans

TAMPA , FL. 01/ 31/ 2012: CROWD JUST LOVES MITT....Mitt Romney, primary night in Florida.( David L Ryan / Globe Staff Photo ) SECTION: NATIONAL TOPIC : REPORTER

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mitt Romney was on stage at his victory rally after winning the Florida primary.

TAMPA - Mitt Romney presented a potent case in Florida yesterday that he is the strongest Republican candidate to challenge President Obama by clobbering Newt Gingrich in a third swing state.

First came Iowa, where Romney almost won and Gingrich placed a distant fourth. Then Romney trounced the field in New Hampshire. Gingrich did not break 10 percent in the Granite State. Now Florida.

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All three states are more consequential in the general election than redder-than-red South Carolina, the scene of Gingrich’s only victory, because they represent the real prize: the political center.

Obama captured each of them in 2008. Romney’s appeal to mainstream Republicans, moderates, and independents makes him far more likely than Gingrich to compete strongly for these and other battleground states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, in 2012.

But unless Gingrich suddenly capitulates, Romney will continue to wrestle for weeks if not months with the ideological and emotional forces tearing at the Republican Party.

Newt Gingrich has much to overcome if he wants to be the next Reagan.

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The staunch conservatives who have powered Gingrich’s candidacy demand a vehicle for their anger over federal power and spending. Take voters like Tony Incardoni, who stood alone in his air-conditioning technician uniform in the back of a Tampa aircraft hangar for a Gingrich rally this week.

“Newtron bomb! Newtron bomb!’’ he bellowed in full-throated approval. “Yeah!’’

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Romney, in contrast, has taken to reciting the many verses of “America the Beautiful.’’ It intertwines nostalgia with patriotism in a pitch to conservatives, but also seems rather quaint in the face of the incendiary talk emanating from Gingrich and his allies.

“Stupid people are ruining America, and we’ve got to stop that,’’ declared Gingrich ally Herman Cain, drawing wild cheers from supporters at the Tampa rally.

Perceived as the Romney alternative, Gingrich has strong motivation to stay in the race as it enters the February caucus states and heads toward Super Tuesday. Yet, prolonging the primary process all spring, as Gingrich threatens to do, risks marginalizing the issues while magnifying the negative ads and personal attacks.

Such a campaign alienates the critical voice in the general election - independents - and allows Obama to skate unchecked.

Gingrich’s attacks also reinforce the very points that Obama will hammer against Romney: ties to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street, vast wealth, favorable tax rates.

Florida voters repeatedly stated in interviews that they wanted to hear answers to the nation’s housing and foreclosure crisis, the deficit, and the instability of Social Security and Medicare. Instead, the tactical politics of the establishment-vs.-insurgent civil war gave them only personal attacks, both in debates and on the airwaves. Ninety-two percent of the political advertising on Florida TV stations in the past week (Monday to Monday) was negative, according to analysis by Kantar Media/CMAG, a Virginia media consulting firm.

Voters’ regard for the candidates typically declines in such a negative race. An ABC/Washington Post poll of all national voters (Democrats, independents, and Republicans) showed that Romney’s unfavorability rating rose from 31 percent in September to 49 percent in late January. His favorable rating stayed even at around 31 percent. The only consolation prize for Romney was Gingrich’s rating in January was slightly worse: 51 percent unfavorable and 29 percent favorable.

Loyal Republicans are dismayed. Jo-Ann Miller, a registered nurse from Orlando, bid $160 at the Orange County Republicans silent-auction last week and won a framed illustration depicting a jolly bunch of former Republican presidents - from Abraham Lincoln through George W. Bush - sitting around playing poker. By Monday, she had already hung the print, titled “Grand ol’ Gang,’’ in her home office.

“I admire our presidents,’’ she said, declining to say whom she voted for in the Florida primary. “But I am not happy with our leading candidates now, and the reason is they have gotten too dirty. It is beginning to disgust me.’’

Deb Howard, a fervent Gingrich backer from Spring Hill, said she, too, believes the negative attacks are playing into the hands of Democrats.

“That’s pure stupidity and a waste of time,’’ she said. Obama, she added, is loving it: “Yeehaw! They’re having a party.’’

Gingrich frequently compares himself to Ronald Reagan and talks about his role in helping foment the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Romney has explicitly tried to dispel the idea with a Florida commercial mocking Gingrich’s frequent references and saying Reagan only mentioned Gingrich once in his memoir.

Yet both Gingrich and Romney allies have drawn parallels between the current primary and the 1976 campaign, when Reagan carried the votes of conservatives in the West and South against the establishment candidate, incumbent Gerald Ford. That contest was not settled until the convention, where Ford finally emerged the nominee.

Gingrich has much to overcome in this campaign if he wants to be the next Reagan and carry the fight all the way to the Tampa convention.

With a pair of weak debate performances on NBC and CNN, Gingrich even squandered in Florida a key bragging point: that his prowess as a debater would stand him well in a one-on-one contest against the president. But the proportional allocation of delegates in many states combined with the ability to raise unlimited super PAC money from a single source like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson give him the rationale to compete.

The increasing demands from the establishment for him to step aside will only play to his strategy, said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“He can use that and go to Tea Party groups and say, ‘Hey, they are scared of us,’ ’’ Damore said.

Gingrich is different from many typical primary candidates.

“You see a Rick Perry and a Jon Huntsman, who want a future in the party, they are going to bow out when they know it’s a lost cause,’’ said Damore. “Folks like Ron Paul, who are ideologues, never leave.’’

Gingrich doesn’t exactly fit either model, which makes his candidacy unpredictable. The advantage his candidacy provides the Democrats, however, is predictable.

“They couldn’t have scripted it better. Obviously they want it to continue through the spring,’’ Damore said. “It’s a problem for the Republican Party. It’s a problem for the congressional candidates. It gives Obama free space to define the agenda.’’

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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