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Romney, Gingrich dig in for long run

Had enough of the Republican presidential primary? There's only 95 percent of the race left to run.

Sure, Mitt Romney has the money, the vast majority of endorsements and, after Tuesday's big Florida win, the momentum on his side. But if you look at the race in terms of delegates — and that's ultimately what it takes to win the nomination — it's easy to see why Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum show no signs of calling it quits.

It takes 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination, and after grabbing Florida's 50, Romney is up to 71. Gingrich has 23, Santorum 13 and Paul 3. (That's counting delegates awarded by states, not superdelegates.)

Even if Romney manages to win every possible delegate going forward, he would not lock down the nomination until nearly May.

Much to the horror of some party leaders who see the prospect of a protracted, nasty primary leaving the ultimate nominee weakened for the general election, Gingrich says he is prepared to fight all the way to the convention.

"It almost looks self-destructive," said St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, a top fundraiser for Romney who said he has "great affection" for Gingrich. "I think it's time for him to announce he's getting out of the race. Florida is a cross-section of America and it was a major win for Romney. The writing is on the wall."

The pace of the race slows this month, but February could be rough for the former House speaker. Nevada and Maine kick off with caucuses Saturday, followed by caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday and primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. All told, 187 delegates are at stake in those races, most of which Romney is expected to win.

"Some of the party leadership might like Newt to drop out, but I don't think he will, and I don't think with the base of support he has that he should,'' said former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, noting that most of Florida's GOP electorate preferred someone other than Romney.

Romney crushed Gingrich in TV spending in Florida, McCollum said, but February will give Gingrich time to concentrate on traditional fundraising and as more and more states vote, Romney's money will be spread thinner.

"Some of the Texas and California and other fundraisers and big players that aren't with Romney are cued up and ready,'' McCollum said. "When this is spread across many states and the money can only be spread so far — no matter what Romney raises — these states coming along will be more competitive."

Gingrich allies see little reason to be optimistic about the February contests, but March 6 is "Super Tuesday," when 11 states go to the polls, and could be his best chance to regain momentum. They include Southern states where Gingrich could be strong, including his home state of Georgia (76 delegates) and Tennessee (58 delegates). Gingrich failed to make it onto the March 6 ballot in Virginia (49 delegates), but April 3 offers another incentive for Gingrich to plow ahead: Texas (155 delegates).

"If the establishment had pushed Ronald Reagan out early, we wouldn't have had Ronald Reagan," said Patrick Davis, a GOP consultant and Gingrich backer in Colorado who was at a Gingrich phone bank Wednesday. "For the non-establishment Republicans, the tea partiers, the true conservatives, Newt has to stay in this race and be our voice."

Davis said the campaign is "living off the land" but doing the grunt work of calling supporters and donors. "He's not laying down. At the end of this election, when we get to Tampa, he's the best convention candidate. He can give a speech that can move a room and turn delegates."

It remains to be seen whether Gingrich can raise the money to sustain a viable campaign, or whether his main backer, billionaire gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, will continue funding the pro-Gingrich super PAC to which he already has contributed $10 million.

Gingrich's campaign said it raised $5 million in January but did not reveal how much it had on hand. Romney reported raising $24 million in the last three months of 2011 and had about $20 million on hand.

Sam Rashid, a Gingrich fundraiser from Hillsborough County, said the campaign was organizing a finance meeting Friday in Nevada and added he would tap his network of 1,600 small business owners nationwide for help.

"This has to be a grass roots driven campaign, but even a grass roots campaign needs the donors to step up to the plate," Rashid said.

Can they raise the money? Absolutely, he said.

"The passion we have for a Gingrich nomination has not wavered one bit," Rashid said. "This is a fight all the way to the end. It's not going to be determined by the delegates that were awarded in Florida."

It's not even clear that all of Florida's 50 delegates ultimately will go to Romney.

Some Republicans are expected to challenge the national party's determination that Florida can award its delegates winner-take-all. A successful challenge would force Florida's delegates to be divided proportionally by vote share, which would turn out to be 23 for Romney, 16 for Gingrich, and the rest to Santorum and Paul.

Gingrich has made clear he would like Santorum to drop out so conservative voters would consolidate around him. But Santorum shows no interest at this point, and there is no guarantee the vast majority of those votes would go to Gingrich.

"This can last just as long as Newt can or wants to stay in the race, but I just don't see a path for him at this point," said Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist who studies the nominating system. "I don't know that Florida was necessarily a killer, but that's a difficult one to rebound from."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

Romney, Gingrich dig in for long run 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:51pm]

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