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Does defiant Gingrich help or hurt GOP's chances?

By John Helton and Shawna Shepherd, CNN
updated 11:35 AM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gingrich vows to stay in race up to the Republican convention
  • Former House speaker says GOP nomination contest between him, Mitt Romney
  • Gingrich says campaign will be a battle of "people power" against "money power"

Orlando, Florida (CNN) -- After a bruising 10 days in Florida, Newt Gingrich wasn't conceding anything to Mitt Romney following his devastating, momentum-shifting loss in the state's primary.

Instead, Gingrich appeared to be more emboldened to be the conservative alternative to Romney, as the campaign for the Republican nomination enters a stretch of low-stakes contests in February.

In a speech Tuesday night, when it was clear that Romney had routed the former House speaker, Gingrich didn't congratulate his opponent; he didn't even utter his name. Nor did he make the traditional congratulatory phone call to Romney after it became clear he wouldn't be able to follow his win in South Carolina with another in Florida.

Instead, he vowed to continue his campaign all the way to the Republican convention, speaking behind a podium with a sign that read "46 states to go," to drive home the point to those who question his campaign's viability that he's staying in the race.

"I just want to reassure them tonight, we are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August," he said of the "elite media" and the Republican establishment who fear that Gingrich's attacks on Romney could produce a fractured party going into the general election against President Barack Obama.

"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate," he said of Romney.

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That was dialing it back a bit from the vitriol he had expressed for his opponent in previous days. Reacting to damaging words from Romney and attack ads by groups supporting Romney, Gingrich had questioned Romney's honesty -- at various times referring to his opponent as "fundamentally dishonest," Romney's attacks as "breathtakingly dishonest," and his answers in two strong debate performances as "blatantly dishonest."

So the race for the Republican nomination now appears to be a grudge match between the two.

"There is bad blood," said CNN contributor and RedState blogger Erick Erickson.

"I think it's about two guys who don't like each other, but it's also about a Republican base who's sitting back saying we're talking about Mitt and Newt not ironically as the potential nominee, and people aren't excited about those. So you've got these underlying people who aren't really excited about either one, both of them trying to get them excited about them. And they don't particularly like each other either. "

Despite his convincing win in South Carolina, Gingrich entered Florida with a significant handicap. He surged into contention in November and December, which didn't give him enough time to build a strong organization in Florida, unlike Romney, who started building his last summer.

Gingrich had not even stepped on stage to deliver his victory speech in South Carolina before aides were already playing up Romney's advantage in Florida.

By then, early voting in Florida was under way. Over 100,000 ballots had already been cast before Gingrich claimed South Carolina, and thousands more absentee ballots were on their way back to Tallahassee.

Romney had apparently learned his lesson from allowing Gingrich's strong debating skills to put him on his heels in South Carolina. He and his surrogates, like John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee, and political action committees that supported Romney, went on the attack -- questioning Gingrich's ethics, his stability and his electability against Obama.

Romney's deep pockets and those of the super PACs supporting him also outspent Gingrich and his supporters 5-1 on television ads in a diverse state with 10 media markets, which shaped voters' view of Gingrich.

But it also fueled Gingrich's anger toward the attacks directed at him, which Campaign Media Analysis Group determined to be the most negative political campaign ever. CMAG's analysis determined that 92% of ads airing in Florida over the past week were negative.

In his speech on Tuesday, Gingrich vowed that his campaign would be a battle of "people power" against "money power."

Gingrich hopes to parlay conservatives' mistrust of Romney's convictions to the nomination, but he still faces competition for the conservative vote from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also shows no signs of getting out of the race.

The Gingrich campaign is tempering expectations for contests in Nevada and Michigan -- Romney is favored to win both -- and largely banking on contests in March in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

He flew overnight to Nevada so he can speak at a rally in Reno on Wednesday afternoon. He is expected to campaign in the state until voters caucus on Saturday.

Santorum decided early on that he couldn't compete in Florida's media wars and instead decided to draw a battle line in Nevada. The state's caucus on Saturday is similar to that in Iowa, where he scored a surprising win in the opening contest of the campaign.

For his part, Santorum congratulated Romney for his win on Tuesday but then condemned the ugly tone of the Florida race, encouraging his opponents not to engage in a "mud wrestling" match in which everyone gets dirty.

Despite fears that a Gingrich-Romney grudge match would produce a damaged candidate in the fall, at least one conservative thinks a tough primary campaign will produce a better candidate.

Drawing a parallel to the 2008 Democratic race, in which Obama and Hillary Clinton contested the race deep into the primaries, Ralph Reed said that Obama emerged "a tougher, a better and a more disciplined candidate in the general (election) because of her.

Reed also found parallels in Republican contests.

"We've all seen this movie before. This is a recurrent drama within the Republican Party that goes all the way back to the Eisenhower-Taft battle at the convention in '52. It reaches its crescendo with Goldwater-Rockefeller. Then it's replayed again with Reagan and Ford in '76. They go all the way to the convention," he said.

"The fact is, there's nothing but good out of a muscular, competitive, hard-fought primary, as long as you can reconcile at the convention."

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