Newt Gingrich is back from the political dead, and only Mitt Romney can stop him

AS SOON as Newt Gingrich’s landslide win in South Carolina was announced by US networks, two ideas were put forward as gospel. Firstly, that this was an unexpected sensation – and secondly that, due to the vastness and expense of campaigning in the state, such a sensation would be impossible for him to repeat in Florida. Both are highly flawed.

Gingrich knows how to come back from the dead. He emerged from the wilderness in March last year to launch his campaign. By June, however, he was floundering to such an extent that almost all his senior team quit. But strong debate performances and the collapse of the Bachmann/Perry/Cain campaigns saw Newt surging into the lead last November. His lead in Iowa led the Romney campaign to release a barrage of negative attack adverts that successfully dented his momentum. He came fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and seemed doomed to drop out after an inevitable defeat in South Carolina.

But, of course, it didn’t work out like that for zombie Gingrich, who thumped Romney by 12 points. You can easily imagine the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign screaming “WHY WON’T YOU JUST DIE?” at their TVs.

If South Carolina threw the Republican nomination into a chaotic uncertainty, it did at least settle one question once and for all: Newt Gingrich is the only viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney – a status no-one will now be able to take from him and one that will give him a solid vote in all future primaries and caucuses.

But was Gingrich’s victory really such a surprise and is Florida really so very different?

The briefest analysis of the two candidates’ polling figures from South Carolina and Florida (below) shows a stark similarity, one that should terrify the Romney campaign. In both, Gingrich has led for most of the past few months – South Carolina was not an unexpected sensation and Florida has never been solid Romney country.

Will money matter? In Florida it costs roughly $1m to run a single advert. Team Romney is spending $2.3m just between Wednesday and next Tuesday’s vote. However much money Newt’s own fundraising committee (SuperPAC) releases, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to match Romney. He has so far spent nothing.

However, Gingrich’s win in South Carolina, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s in Iowa, didn’t come down to cash, but playing to the opinions of the Republican electorate. The effectiveness of a positive Fox News cycle is likely to be significantly greater than another campaign commercial or automated robocall. John McCain was significantly outspent in his Florida victory over Romney in 2008. In a political system dominated by billionaire-backed SuperPACs, the idea that debates can still change a campaign is encouraging – and Newt remains a master of this free medium. It will be especially interesting to see how he plays the release on Mitt Romney’s tax returns on Tuesday.

Insider Advantage and Rasmussen polls, released yesterday, show Newt Gingrich with an eight and nine point lead in Florida respectively. Conservatives, so long divided across a range of eclectic candidates, are coalescing around him.

Will he win in Florida? The odds remain stacked against him and the Republican establishment will do just about everything possible in the next week to derail his candidature, as they stare down the barrel of his vast unpopularity among the swing voters they need to win the general election. Early voting also means Romney may already be ahead by 40,000 votes in those cast before Newt’s South Carolina bounce.

But the astounding story is that Newt Gingrich could win in Florida – bringing terror to DC Republicans and delight to the Obama campaign. This could get very very interesting.

Mark Gettleson is head of research at PoliticsHome.com and senior political analyst for Dods Engagement.

Debates can still change an American election campaign and Newt is master of them