As expected, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday night, the first primary on the GOP campaign calendar held in a state that comes close to reflecting the nation's cultural and demographic diversities. Romney, having lately discovered his inner angry man, bested his only real challenger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, by at least a dozen percentage points in a race that was called right after all polls closed. (The final results of the race are here, via the Washington Post.)
With a blowout long-foretold now in the books, Romney lays more solid claim to being the presumptive Republican nominee. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are still in the race, finishing Tuesday in third and fourth place, respectively. But Gingrich assumes his most provocative role in the campaign season, having announced he intends to stay in the race through the bonanza of March 6, Super Tuesday. Part Lazarus, part Jake LaMotta, the pummeled, disliked former speaker of the House, left for dead more than once, vows to be still standin' when the campaign pulls into Tampa in August — whether the party establishment likes it or not.
If there was any doubt of Gingrich's intention to stay the course, that doubt vanished last night, when Gingrich supporters held aloft placards with the words 46 STATES TO GO — minutes before the candidate addressed the crowd — throwing conservative rhetorical red meat into the crowd with both hands. The Republican reality show had just been renewed in a state that sacrificed half its delegates to hold a primary on such an early, influential time in the 2012 race (the penalty for breaking Republican Party rules by moving the date so early on the calendar).
For President Obama, recently somewhat liberated from his bipartisan tendencies, the Republicans' ongoing existential crisis is his campaign's current, best opportunity to position his White House — and down-ticket Democrats running in state races this November — as having a clear direction for the country's future.
Consider the president's recent pugnaciousness on policy. Through recess appointments, executive orders and the power of his bully pulpit, Obama has taken off the gloves. We've had recent flashes of what some have called "the new Obama." In September, addressing a joint session of Congress, the president introduced the American Jobs Act, a $447 billion measure intended to "provide a jolt to the economy that has stalled." The president all but called out by name certain Republican leaders from beleaguered districts.
Other more recent events, such as Obama's pursuit of an undisputed win in the payroll tax-cut debate, and his January recess appointment of heads for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board, point to newfound muscle in his administration. A forceful, generally positive State of the Union address also helped put the wind at the president's back, for now.
The Obama campaign has been reportedly planning for a Romney nomination all along. The former Massachusetts governor's win in Florida and Gingrich's insistence on staying in the race gives the Obama campaign plenty of time to develop plans of attack that include fundraising, new technology, supporting down-ticket candidates and staying the course at the White House.
For several months last year, speculation emerged that the Obama re-election campaign would raise perhaps $1 billion. That forecast has been dialed back considerably. In a video message posted on the campaign Web site on Jan. 12, Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, shot down that $1 billion dream as counterproductive. "Too many Obama supporters think we don't need their money, or they don't need to give now," he says in the video. Still, the Obama fundraising machine is working: The campaign reported raising a healthy $68 million in the fourth quarter of 2011.
More than 98 percent of contributors made donations of $250 or less in the fourth quarter, Messina said. The Obama '08 campaign raised roughly $750 million that way, in a strategy that personified grassroots fundraising. With waves of small-dollar donations — like a rent party gone viral — Obama enlisted legions of supporters who contributed in amounts they could live with, some making donations a part of their regular budgets.
It's a strategy Team Obama hopes to repeat this election cycle, with a high-tech twist. Politico reported Monday that the Obama campaign would be outfitting campaign staffers with Square mobile credit-card readers, new technology that will let them process campaign donations over their cell phones and mobile devices. The Obama 2012 campaign will be the first test of the mobile-payments technology at a national political level, Politico reported.
And the president hasn't lost his feel for social media. On Monday he fielded questions on jobs, veterans affairs and education from young people in a live-streamed Q&A session seen on the Google+ social networking site, YouTube and the White House blog.
Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were grooming "a class of candidates" in various state races, many of them set to contest the Tea Party congressional candidates who won in 2010.
As much as anything else, the protracted Republican saga gives Team Obama time — to build staff in hotly contested states, to continue outreach to Latino Americans (a demographic Obama won in 2008 and still successfully courts), to further delineate what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans, to sharpen the policy differences between the president and his rivals. "We're going to use these primaries as an organizing tool, and get ready to run the most dynamic grassroots residential campaign in history," Wasserman Schultz told MSNBC.
While the Republicans wrangle over the style of the musical chairs they're sitting in, President Obama seems to have started the fall campaign early, with executive actions and campaign addresses that seek to emphasize the practical over the political, while at the same time shoring up relations with a restless, pre-Occupied base.
He's not on cruise control to re-election; unlike his challengers, Obama is subject to the relentless demands of the job they want. But while the GOP candidates debate who among them is fit for the presidency, President Obama is smartly doubling down on what he does best: being the leader the rest of them wannabe.