Mitt Romney has long had the edge in money and staffing in Florida, but with Newt Gingrich's big win Saturday night in South Carolina, next week's Jan. 31 Republican primary in the Sunshine State is suddenly wide open.
"With Mitt losing South Carolina, even a Florida win is no longer proof of inevitability," said former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, who supported Mr. Romney in the 2008 GOP presidential nomination that was eventually won by Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"We thought this contest was about who was best able to beat Obama or who had the best plans for economic recovery. But it turned out it was about who could beat up on Obama and the liberal press with the vigor and passion Gingrich has shown," Mr. Cardenas told The Washington Times.
He said Mr. Romney has had plenty of openings to show that level of passion — but the former Massachusetts governor may simply not have it in his personal makeup.
John Zogby, pollster for The Washington Times, said, "The Gingrich victory in South Carolina will have a serious impact for the short term as well as the long-term future of the GOP. In the short term, it does great damage to the credibility of Mitt Romney, and will perhaps prove fatal to his candidacy."
Republicans in the camps of all four surviving candidates for the GOP presidential nomination said privately they expect all four to carry the fight into Florida and probably beyond, in a contest that could last through this spring.
Rick Santorum will stay in the arena unless he starts getting single-digit outcomes in consecutive contests, operatives said.
"Keep in mind that Ron Paul will go the distance in order to have a seat at the table come GOP convention and thereafter," Mr. Cardenas said. "I wouldn't put it past Mitt and Santorum to have a ticket in 2012, if Santorum ... still has something to offer."
Other campaigns noted that the February primary schedule that includes Nevada and other small-state contests is a lot cheaper than Florida's primary.
"It's become obvious that this is the most volatile nomination contest in history," Mr. Cardenas said. "So the four candidates now in the contest will say, 'Why drop out?' "
Mr. Gingrich has assembled a campaign team in Florida made up of some operatives who got their training under Mr. Cardenas when he was running the state party there.
"The brain trust of Gingrich's Florida campaign are Congressman David Rivera, who worked for me at Republican Party of Florida before he won election to the state Legislature and then to Congress."
"Portia Palmer, Newt's state communications director, was my press secretary at RPOF," Mr. Cardenas said. "Jose Mallea, Newt's Florida campaign director, was the former campaign adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio and the RPOF."
With Mr. Gingrich working with an experienced Florida team and riding momentum from South Carolina, Mr. Romney suddenly looks vulnerable.
"While he could conceivably come back and win in Florida, the cracks in his candidacy would be revealed," Mr. Zogby said. "GOP voters have already indicated that they don't love him, they just think he can win against Obama. The party is already fractured and a Romney loss means not only that he is on the ropes, but that the party is one step further from healing."
Mr. Zogby said the four remaining candidates, beyond the ideological silos they represent, are clearly getting on each other's nerves. "Ron Paul can't deliver his base to the nominee anyway, but the Romney-Gingrich-Santorum rift has all the earmarks of the Jimmy Carter-Ted Kennedy fight in 1980, which ended very badly for both the nominee and the party."
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