Hear the audio version here (segments older than 3 weeks may be unavailable)
Newt Gingrich completed quite an impressive comeback in South Carolina on Saturday, and I can't help but think that much of it was sealed at the presidential debate where Mitt floundered and Newt soared. That's why heading into Florida, though the conventional wisdom is saying Romney is in strong shape, Newt has every chance to do the same thing there - with two debates scheduled before the primary date.
Something else that is interesting about the dynamic of the race, for the first time since this race really began, stories are being discussed about Mitt's collapse, or Mitt's staggering or Mitt's faltering. To this point it has been the slow and steady eddie Mitt Romney holding serve while the rest of the field flashes and fizzles.
You're also seeing a bit of role-reversal too. Whereas the Gingrich slide to "also-ran" in Iowa provoked a little negativity from Newt in his New Hampshire campaign, the Romney collapse in South Carolina seems to be doing the same for Mitt now. Here were his not-so-veiled remarks after his second place showing in South Carolina:
"Our party cannot be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business, and never run a state," Romney declared. "We cannot defeat [President Obama] with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise."
"Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them used against them tomorrow," Romney continued, adding that Republicans who embrace such attacks aren't fit to be the nominee.
That's likely to be Romney's message in Florida next week, as he looks to rebound in a state where his campaign has already invested millions of dollars in staff and other political infrastructure.
Those millions of dollars in staff and political infrastructure are undoubtedly important. But a couple strong debate performances, sure to be delivered by Gingrich, can make up a lot of that in public sentiment.
My take on all this? It's become the two person race that we've talked about all along. Remember it looked early on like it would be Mitt vs. The Donald. Then it was Mitt vs. Michele. Then it was Mitt vs. Perry. Then Mitt vs. Cain. Then Mitt vs. Newt, Santorum, and now Newt again. And I think it's that way to stay. Honestly, that's bad news for Romney. The worst thing that could happen to him is to be in a one-on-one race. And that also so happens to be where Newt thrives - going head to head in the spotlight.
I don't think Santorum will drop right away, and Paul won't either (though he will most likely be a non-factor in the race between Mitt and Newt). That's what Romney is hoping, anyway. Personally, I think both these guys have every opportunity to take Obama to the cleaners. Both of them have strengths, both of them have weaknesses, and despite Mitt's advantage in money and organization, and Newt's advantage in intellect and debating skills, I see this as a pretty even match heading into some big primaries.