The morning after the Florida primary – the nastiest political contest yet in the Republican leadership race – raises a key question: how much longer can the GOP slug-fest continue?
There is concern in the Republican party establishment that a long, drawn-out race will weaken and hurt the eventual nominee in the more crucial contest against President Barack Obama in November.
Florida primary winner Mitt Romney addressed the issue head-on last night.
"A competitive primary does not divide us," Mitt Romney told cheering supporters last night in Florida. "It prepares us. And we will win."
There is no doubt that after his humiliating defeat in South Carolina on January 21st to former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, the Florida campaign transformed Mr. Romney, out of necessity, in to a non-stop attack machine.
And it paid off with a resounding win: Mr. Romney defeated Mr. Gingrich by 14 percentage points.
As the Republican leadership race enters the month of February – with several caucuses and key primaries at the end of the month – Mr. Romney is prepared more than ever with an emboldened campaign operation and a mighty war chest to take on his opponents.
Mr. Gingrich promises to compete in all remaining 46 contests – even though, as it has been pointed out, he has failed to get his name on the ballot in Missouri and Virginia – and eventually take his campaign all the way to the Republican national convention in Tampa Bay in August.
"We are going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months," Mr. Gingrich told supporters in Florida last night.
In actual fact, Mr. Gingrich is going to have to tap his so-called "people power" so that he can become a "money power," if he is to see his campaign through the next couple of months.
Figures released Tuesday show that Mr. Romney was able to raise nearly $24.3-million in the last quarter of 2011, and spending about $20-million of that in the same quarter.
In an analysis of that data by Bloomberg News, eight of the 10 biggest donors worked for banks and investment firms.
"Wall Street supports someone they consider one of their own and the candidate perceived to be the most committed to promoting policies they prefer," Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University in New York, told Bloomberg News.
Meanwhile, the Gingrich campaign was able to raise $9.8-million during the same period and spent $8.1-million.
Mr. Gingrich would do well to study the Ron Paul fundraising operation.
Congressman Ron Paul of Texas was able raise more than Mr. Gingrich during the same period: $13.3-million in the final quarter of 2011. A key detail about Mr. Paul's fundraising is that more than half of the donations to his campaign in 2011 came from smaller donors who gave donations of $200 or less.
When you set aside the funds raised by the individual campaigns, and look at fundraising carried out by Super PACs – the groups that can raise unlimited funds and spend them on TV attack ads so long as they do not coordinate with the candidates they support – the figures, also released yesterday, are staggering.
As the POLITICO web site points out, the pro-Romney Super PAC had more money in the bank heading in to 2012 than Mr. Romney's campaign did: $23.6-million compared to the candidate's $20-million cash.
A Super PAC supporting Mr. Gingrich has also managed to pull in timely donations in sums of $5-million at a time.
But a smaller pool of donors and doubts about the effect on the party if Mr. Gingrich follows through on this promise to take his campaign all the way to the Republican national convention in Tampa Bay in August make it harder for the Gingrich campaign – and its Super PAC surrogate – to raise money.
Money, ego and a glimmer of hope will keep Mr. Gingrich's campaign going.
The Gingrich campaign is betting that even if Mr. Romney dominates the seven February contests – which he is expected to do in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, followed by contests next week in Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, Missouri (non-binding primary), and primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28th – the proportional distribution of delegates may give Mr. Gingrich an opportunity in March to narrow the delegate gap.
The glimmer of hope rests in the March 6th Super Tuesday primaries, which includes contests in southern states like Mr. Gingrich's home state of Georgia. His campaign believes it can beat Mr. Romney in the south.
The Gingrich campaign is keen to point out that after the four contests so far, only 5 per cent of the total 2,286 delegates have been distributed. Mr. Romney has been awarded 66, Mr. Gingrich has 25 delegates, Ron Paul has 10 delegates and Rick Santorum has 8 delegates.
Mr. Gingrich is not going to narrow the gap in the February contests. In fact, it is Mr. Paul who could surpass Mr. Gingrich in the delegates count.
During Tuesday night's CNN election coverage, correspondent John King mapped out a scenario in which Mr. Romney might have to wait until early June to secure the 1,144 delegates he needs to become the GOP nominee.
That is certainly a scenario that will give the Republican establishment sleepless nights.