Nastiness Reigns in GOP Race

RightWatch: The negative ads that helped Romney win the Florida primary will hurt him in November.

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Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney (Getty Images)

If there's any lesson to be learned from Mitt Romney's big win over Newt Gingrich in Tuesday night's Florida GOP primary, it's that negative campaigning works.

That's the same takeaway that came from their previous battle in South Carolina, though there it was Gingrich, not Romney, who benefited the most from a barrage of advertising whose only goal was to destroy the reputation of an opponent by spreading distortions and outright lies.

As nasty as those contests proved to be, the coming weeks are likely to descend even deeper into the heart of darkness on the road to Super Tuesday on March 6.

By then, Gingrich and Romney may well have covered each other in so much muck that they will obliterate any chance the Republican Party has of denying President Barack Obama a second term in the White House.

Take a look at some statistics compiled by the New York Times to get a sense of the scope of Romney's assault on Gingrich. In Florida, Romney and his nominally independent super PAC spent a combined $15.4 million on TV and radio spots, roughly four times as much as the $3.7 million expended by Gingrich and his allies.

Negative ads accounted for a whopping 92 percent of the total number of ads put up by all the candidates. An amazing 68 percent of the ads were attacks on Gingrich. Of all the ads Romney and his backers put on the air, only 0.1 percent were positive -- and that tiny share was accounted for by one Spanish-language spot in which Romney's son raved about his dad's leadership ability.

If ever there were a candidate whose reputation deserved to be dragged through the mud, it's Gingrich, whose self-regard, hypocrisy, ethical callousness and phony intellectualism know absolutely no bounds. The rotund former speaker of the House (think Jabba the Hut in Star Wars) even managed to pander to voters on the hard-pressed Space Coast of Florida by suggesting that the U.S. should beat out the Chinese and build a permanent base on the moon.

But going after even such a fat target as Gingrich as aggressively as Romney did creates blowback. The negative tone of the race turns off voters and makes it more difficult for a candidate to explain why they ought to be for him, not merely reject his opponent.

In Romney's case, that's especially crucial because even after his years on the campaign trail, Republicans don't really like him. Many of them sense that for all his pretense of being a conservative, he's really a "Massachusetts moderate," as Gingrich insists.

So it looks as if throwing all that swill at Gingrich may help Romney win the nomination while it simultaneously sets him up for defeat in the fall. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out last week, Romney's unfavorability rating among independents has leaped 20 percent in the last two months.

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