- William Bennett: Mitt Romney is an improved candidate but must prove worth to conservatives
- He says Romney has to avoid gaffes such as remarks he's not "concerned about the very poor"
- Bennett: Romney needs to lay out vision for America; Gingrich needs to focus on his plans
- He says some think Rick Santorum is the stronger alternative to Romney
Mitt Romney's victory in Florida is big but still leaves much to be desired.
His win comes partly from substance and partly from a substantial advantage in resources. Romney is now a much improved candidate. His tactics and message are sharper, particularly defending his wealth.
In the two debates before the Florida primary, Romney outperformed Newt Gingrich, showing a smarter, tougher, more forceful demeanor. And he had an obvious advantage in resources. Romney owned the airwaves in Florida, outspending Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul more than five to one.
Should Romney be the Republican nominee, he will not have this luxury against President Barack Obama. Romney must be able to win on issues and substance; he has yet to prove that he can do that. Conservatives, in particular, still have serious questions about his core credentials. If Romney repeals "ObamaCare," what will be his alternative? Will he put forward a bold tax reform plan?
In the coming weeks, Romney needs a hard-hitting, conservative speech, one that reaches deeper than his traditional stump speech. We know Santorum's and Gingrich's vision for the country; Romney's isn't so clear. He needs a lucid, Reaganesque plan for the country; it's not enough for him to run as a businessman. He also needs to be gaffe free. His locution Wednesday morning on CNN -- "I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it." -- is inept at best for a very successful man.
Coming off his surge in South Carolina, Gingrich underperformed in Florida. Granted, he was the primary target of Romney's barrage of negative ads, but he was noticeably rattled and distracted from his message. Gingrich is at his best when he takes on the media and Obama, not when he stoops to ugly, personal fights with Romney and Santorum.
The lack of debates between now and March will hurt Gingrich more than any other candidate. As Byron York of The Washington Examiner told me on my radio show Wednesday morning, "Gingrich has scored most of his points against the press, not against his fellow candidates." He must find effective ways to engage Romney on the issues and rise above the muckraking. Americans like big ideas; he should return to those. Gingrich has come back from the dead twice; he should not be counted out or underestimated after Florida.
In spite of skipping Florida, Santorum is right to remain in the race. With the remaining caucus states and the new proportional delegation rules, Santorum has as much of a shot as Gingrich.
Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, pointed out on my show Wednesday that more delegates will be elected in February than in January and Gingrich isn't even on the ballot in Missouri. "Santorum has a shot to replace Gingrich as the alternative to Romney," Kristol said, adding that in his view Santorum is "more electable" and "more compelling" than Gingrich.
Santorum is, after all, the most conservative candidate left in the race. His credentials are much needed in the national dialogue. As iron sharpens iron, he will force Romney and Gingrich to focus on the issues. Yet, somehow, Santorum needs to gain momentum and take votes from Gingrich. Look for him to target Gingrich's record heavily, especially on health care, in the weeks ahead.
The shift from South Carolina to Florida proved once again that one week can change a lot in American politics. It's not likely we will know the Republican nominee until March. The larger question now becomes whether conservatives will coalesce and unite around one candidate based on substance and message -- or electability.
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