Romney in the driving seat going into Florida, with Gingrich playing the rabid dog in the back seat

Oh, how far we’ve come. It’s not quite e pluribus unum, but in the three nominating contests that have taken place so far (the Iowa Caucus, the New Hampshire Primary and the South Carolina Primary), a field which numbered seven serious candidates just one month ago has now been whittled down to just four: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. In that month, we’ve lost three beloved contenders – Rick Perry, who couldn’t remember how many departments he wanted to abolish and who spent millions only to drop out before South Carolina having only won four delegates; Jon Huntsman, a decent guy but whose political sense was so poor that he thought serving under the incumbent democratic president would be a plus in the GOP primary; and Michele Bachmann, who believed that vaccination was a communist plot to steal our freedom.

Mitt Romney was supposed to win this one easily. Against a host of candidates with far less money, little institutional support and no presidential aura, the perfectly coiffed Bain executive and former Massachusetts governor expected to walk it.

That nearly happened. Romney narrowly won Iowa against ultraconservative Rick Santorum, and then grabbed a resounding victory in New Hampshire. And then Gingrich’s superior debating skills and pitch-perfect populist rhetoric turned things around – and South Carolina swung massively to Gingrich, who won the contest there by over ten points.

But Gingrich’s lead was not to last. Going into the crucial winner-takes-all Florida republican primary, Mitt Romney knew that despite damaging revelations that he paid less that 14% in taxes, Gingrich was an extremely weak and flawed candidate. Between serious ethics charges that forced him to resign as Speaker of the House, charges of ‘erratic’ behaviour and rather eccentric ideas like building a base on the moon, Gingrich’s weaknesses were put on full display by Romney and countless establishment surrogates – with the inevitable resulting drop in the polls. Romney now looks certain to win the Florida GOP primary:

Yet despite the almost inevitable loss in tonight’s primary, it would be foolish to think that this contest is anywhere near over. Gingrich may be wounded. He may have far less money, far less moderate appeal, and a far more negative image nationwide. But not only is he a fighter – he also knows that the republican base continues to have serious doubts about Romney’s conservative bona fides and general trustworthiness. Consider this:

Despite an opposition that any half-way decent candidate would dream of, Romney has only recently broken into the 30s in nationwide polling among republicans. Meanwhile, unless Rick Santorum can make a serious comeback, Gingrich is the only anti-Romney candidate left whose name isn’t Ron Paul – and Ron Paul’s opposition to militarism and support of legalising marijuana mean that he’s in the wrong party and will never get the nomination. Gingrich knows that if he can remain viable up until Super Tuesday – 6 March, when 10 states go to vote – and if he can crystallise anti-Romney support around him, he can make this a very long and bloody race.

I  don’t honestly think that Gingrich will ultimately prevail. I think that he’s too flawed a candidate to beat someone with as much money and as perfect a campaign organisation as Romney. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Gingrich were to keep this fight going for months. And despite what my friend Thibault Muzergues would say – that long primary contests like the Hillary-Obama slugfest actually help organise and galvanise a party – I think this’ll be a nasty one that won’t make anyone look good. And from my personal ideological point of view, that’s a wonderful thing – plus, it’ll make for great TV.

 Oh, and yes, I realise that I’m contradicting what I said a month ago about this being a short contest and Romney pulverising his opposition. I’m wrong sometimes. But I don’t think I fully understood then the resilience of Newt Gingrich. He resurrected his campaign once already. He can do it again, and again, and again…

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