Newt Gingrich had a bad night Tuesday: After framing the Florida primary as the "tea party versus the cocktail party," he lost among tea party supporters, according to the exit polls that cable and broadcast networks sponsor as a consortium.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney had a great evening, rising from a nine-point deficit in the Rasmussen poll just nine days ago to a 14-point victory, sweeping virtually every demographic and picking up all 50 Florida delegates.
This was an important inflection point, but the contest won't end until one candidate starts consistently winning. That may be coming for Mr. Romney, but he must step up his game.
Mr. Romney's campaign has an estimated $20 million to spend while that of Mr. Gingrich has roughly $1 million. The Romney super PAC purportedly has more than $12 million while the Gingrich super PAC by my estimate might have around $4 million in its coffers. This disparity could prove decisive, and the Romney campaign will be tempted to simply rely on firepower and organization to bull through the calendar.
It might work: February has only two primaries (Michigan and Arizona, both on the 28th) and one debate (on the 22nd). Mr. Romney can duplicate his Florida strategy, where his campaign and super PAC outspent the Gingrich forces on ads by a ratio of 5 to 1 during the last three weeks.
But dangers lurk. While traditional news organizations have been balanced or slightly favorable in their coverage of Mr. Romney, the GOP blogosphere has been decidedly negative on him all January, pointing to continuing unease among conservatives.
Then there are this month's caucuses: Nevada (Feb. 4), Maine (held over seven days, Feb. 4-11), and Minnesota and Colorado (both Feb. 7). Mr. Romney swept all four states in 2008. Expectations are that he'll do so again—but low-turnout caucuses are highly volatile. Ron Paul's concession speech on Tuesday, delivered before turbocharged supporters in Henderson, Nev., did not sound like a man dismayed at getting just 7% of the votes in Florida. He's been spending time in Maine and could upset Mr. Romney there, and Mr. Santorum is focusing on the Colorado caucuses.
Also, Missouri has a "beauty contest" primary Feb. 7. Mr. Gingrich didn't file there, arguing that no delegates were at stake. True, but bragging rights are. Rick Santorum will audition in Missouri for the role of Mr. Romney's principal opponent.
After the February lull comes Super Tuesday, with 10 contests on March 6, all with delegates awarded proportionally. Mr. Romney is likely to win primaries in Virginia, Massachusetts, Ohio, North Dakota and Vermont (with a combined 198 delegates) and perhaps Tennessee and Idaho (with 80 total). Mr. Gingrich failed to make the Virginia ballot or field a full Tennessee slate but is likely to win the primaries in Georgia and Oklahoma (with 114 delegates combined) and perhaps Alaska (with 27).
With his substantial war chest, Mr. Romney can easily saturate airwaves, stuff mailboxes, and jam phone lines to win most contests and more delegates. But Mr. Romney should be looking ahead and realize that what worked against an underfunded Mr. Gingrich won't work against the well-funded Barack Obama.
The Romney campaign is tilted too heavily toward biography and not nearly enough toward ideas. It should make its mantra a line from President Ronald Reagan's final address to the nation: "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
Mr. Romney showed he knows how to take an opponent down; now he needs to show the ability to build himself and the rationale for his candidacy up. He should become bolder in his prescriptions, presenting a confident agenda for economic growth and renewed prosperity through reforms of tax, regulatory and energy policies.
There's no reason he can't, or shouldn't do so. While Mr. Gingrich called Congressman Paul Ryan's entitlement reforms "right-wing social engineering," Mr. Romney complimented them last November. He can refresh that speech and give it again. He can also build on his best moments in recent debates, when he unapologetically and passionately defended free enterprise. Far better to best Mr. Gingrich in the weeks ahead by taking the fight to President Obama, challenging the incumbent's unpleasant attempt to appeal to envy and resentment.
If he does these things, Mr. Romney will improve his chances of consolidating Republicans and winning the nomination battle earlier and in better shape for the fall. If not, the GOP contest will go on, the bitterness will linger, and the road ahead could be treacherous.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, February 1, 2012.