They’re off the blocks in Florida today, for the fourth Republican primary (OK three primaries, one caucus) with a debate tonight in Tampa, and Romney and Gingrich ripping each other new ones.

Today Mitt Romney accused Gingrich of being a “Washington insider”, said that there were questions hanging over his leadership as speaker in the ’90s, and demanded that he return $1.6 million he’d taken in fees from Freddie Mac, the quasi-government mortgage agency that, in Republican mythology, is responsible for the 2008 global crash.

After Gingrich denied being a lobbyist, Romney noted, “Saying that Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist is just a matter of fact … If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck”. He also demanded that Gingrich release records relevant to his work with the body.

By mid-afternoon, Gingrich had responded by saying that Romney was now serving “desperate baloney”, after his stonking and unexpected loss in the South Carolina primary. He accused Romney of hypocritically demanding transparency while offering none.

The accusation prompted Romney to announce that he will release his tax records tomorrow, ahead of the April deadline he had set himself.

Gingrich responded by saying he would release his Freddie Mac records tonight.

The increasingly vicious and desperate encounter comes as new polls show Gingrich surging ahead in Florida, off the back of the South Carolina win.

The conventional wisdom has been that the size of Florida – it will most likely have a primary turnout of 2 million, compared to the total of 800,000 people in all three contests to date – would make a Gingrich surge impossible, given Romney’s cash backing.

Pundits endlessly repeat that the state has “10 television markets” in which ad space must be bought, yada yada.

But if we have learnt anything from these primaries, it’s that their usual unpredictability has been doubled down on this time around.

Why? The answer I think is that we are one click further on from 2008 in terms of media transformation. In 2008 iPhones, Twitter and Facebook and much else were still colonising a space hitherto occupied by TV, etc (08 was the first and last Blackberry election).

Now they’re here, and though sections of the age-shifted Republican base are still relying on three channels of analog, plus Fox (“git that damn communist PBS off my television!”), the new media have upped the general pace.

Things roll over twice as fast as they once did, and that speed causes things to shift at an exponential rate. The process is outpacing the pollsters, even when they poll daily.

All of which means that Romney’s general hopelessness, when contrasted with Newt’s energy, drive, supporter base, and a gradual leaching of support to him from the Perry and Santorum bases, may not be solvable with money alone.

There was a total media buyout in SC — meaning every slot available for political advertising had been sold weeks before they came to town. Most of it was Romney’s. But such saturation is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and even reversal.

Comes a point when you’re sick of the guy’s face, and seeing it again makes you hate him more. When that’s combined with him being a dick, advertising at this level (no Australian election has ever come close — watching an hour of TV, you can see 20 political ads, or four of them repeated four times) can have a powerful reverse effect.

Gingrich’s rise, and his possible triumph in Florida has the Right establishment panicked to the wazoo. Ann Coulter, Mark Steyn … all the death maidens and Eeyores who moan about the death of true conservatism, are now desperately trying to prop Massachusetts Mitt back up, even as he gets worse at this daily.Obama/Romneycare was Hitlerian communofascism or something, but that was then. Another four years out of power, and they worry that the establishment party machine would be taken over by the hillbillies and rapturists in the Tea Party.

Gingrich is 20 times better than Romney at everything that is required of a candidate. And in every poll for the past year, he runs 10 points behind Obama.

Doesn’t shift, no matter what happens. Maybe it would, but if it didn’t, Obama would take 40 states, and the myth of a centre-right America would be blown for ever.

The GOP mainstream worry about Newt not merely because of what might happen in 2012 — they’re already wondering whether he could lose them in 2016.

Now the Tampa debate’s about to start, and Gingrich will tear Romney a fresh one afresh. At this rate Mitt will be all hair product and arseholes, like Chapel Street.

Peter Fray

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