Mitt Romney is favored by polls to win the Florida primary that concludes tomorrow (many votes have already been cast early), by an average margin of more than twelve percentage points. Equally notable, Gingrich is forecast to come in second place, Santorum in a distant third place, and Paul in fourth place behind Santorum by a small margin.
This will be a third successive contest in which Santorum is far back in the pack, which may cause him to drop out of the race. Conventional wisdom is that Gingrich would benefit more than Romney from having Santorum out of the race, because both candidates are competing for the conservative vote. Gingrich has proven to be more of a "street fighter" in this campaign than Santorum, and it is hard to win deep support when one of your signature issues is that as President you would do more to discourage birth control (which far more than 95% of American women who vote have used at some point in their lives without any real complaints). Gingrich is also a genuine Southerner, unlike Appalachian Santorum, which matters in a Republican party which is increasingly becoming a regional party of the South.
But, even if Gingrich got the lion's share of the Santorum vote in subsequent contests, he would still trail Romney in GOP voter support, would still be far behind in money and endorsements, and would still have a public perception that he was extreme (the Denver Post today, in an editorial, called Gingrich a non-serious candidate, despite his win in South Carolina and his projected second place finish in Florida). It also doesn't help Gingrich that he won't even appear on the ballot in the Virginia primary (Santorum won't either). Gingrich's debate performance was reportedly horrible.
Indeed, one of the really notable elements of this year's Republican primary activity, in addition to its wild volatility, is the extent to which debates have mattered. This has favored Romney, who is brighter than most of his challengers, a great deal. While I don't wholeheartedly endorse the "frauds and fools" notion of a Republican primary in which candidates must either be smart and dishonest, or just stupid to appeal to the GOP grass roots, with strong candidates who are neither self-disqualifying themselves before the race begins in the "invisible primary", there is something to be said for the argument that this year's crop of GOP Presidential candidates has been a weak one.
Fundamentally, Gingrich's life long affliction with foot in mouth disease and tarnished political record puts him at a strong disadvantage in both the race for the Republican nomination and even more so were he to be the Republican nominee running against President Obama. The belief of some Republicans that Gingrich would be a stronger general election candidate is mere wishful thinking clouded by a conservative ideology, atypical friends and colleagues, and a Fox News/talk radio media bubble.
Ron Paul's probably won't drop out even with a fourth place finish because his reason for staying in the race is as much to promote his libertarian ideology as to win, but he has yet to win any of the three contests so far and will not win in Florida either, and really has no serious chance of beating Romney in any future state's contest. In New Hampshire, Paul managed a distant second place finish in a near optimal environment and before a consensus had full gelled around Romney. Ron Paul's basic problem is that he isn't in the Republican mainstream, which makes him unattractive to Republicans as their nominee.
As a blogger, of course, I'm rooting for Gingrich. A Romney v. Gingrich v. Paul race that goes on for months would be much more interesting to watch and discuss than a Romney fait accompli before we even make it to February. A long primary would help Romney (the very likely winner in the end) build his ground game and campaign machine, provide much more free media, serve up regular large helpings of gaffes and attacks, and foment unease about how tepid Republican support for Romney is because his conservative credentials are questionable and his Mormon religion makes many Republicans uncomfortable.
And, as a Democrat, the prospect of a Gingrich nominee fills me with glee. The Denver Post compared Gingrich as a nominee to Barry Goldwater. The comparison to Goldwater is generous. Goldwater may have lost big, but he at least set the mold for all subsequent GOP coalitions in federal elections and did more to realign the two major political parties than any other Republican figure in recent history. A better comparison to Gingrich might be McGovern, who was uninspiring and simply ran a mediocre campaign that wasn't centerist enough, causing him to lose badly in the general election. The traits that make Gingrich attractive as a pundit are liabilities as a Presidential candidate.