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Robert Bennett: Romney adjusts, moves Florida polls

Published: Monday, Jan. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns at Lanco Paint Company in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. Romney and Gingrich square off over immigration and other issues as they look to woo Hispanics a day after a feisty, final debate before Tuesday's Florida primary.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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The Florida Primary may determine the race for the Republican nomination. In 2008, it was McCain's win there that eliminated Romney. If that proves to be the case this time, it will be because of "halftime adjustments," to use a football term, that Team Romney made as a result of the outcome in South Carolina. (Full disclosure — I am a Romney supporter.)

Romney went into South Carolina with a strong wind at his back, a two-time winner as the result of a squeaker in Iowa and a romp in New Hampshire. Polls in South Carolina had him ahead by double digits. Then things changed.

Recount results in Iowa took that prize away from him. Then, during the debates, he performed under par, being tentative in the first one and positively stumbling in the second. When he muffed the question about releasing his tax returns by saying, "Maybe ... probably ... I'm considering it," he reinforced the doubts of those who fear that he is slippery and unable to communicate well when forced off script.

By contrast, Gingrich knocked the question about comments from his second wife out of the park when he called it "Despicable!" and brought the audience to its feet in a spontaneous ovation. Polls shifted and Romney's double-digit lead melted into Gingrich's double-digit victory. People other than Gingrich supporters were talking seriously about Gingrich as the nominee.

Team Romney needed to make significant adjustments, and they did. Romney is clearly stronger than he was just a week ago. In the Florida debates, it has been Romney, not Gingrich, who has been crisp and firm and poised and on the attack, as he will need to be if he goes up against President Obama.

It has been Romney, not Gingrich, who has done his homework and has the facts at his finger tips. And it is Romney, not Gingrich, now seeing the polls move in his direction.

Of course, he has had help from what the press calls the Republican "Establishment." (Whatever that is — membership in that group changes from one blogger to the next.)

A Romney supporter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has pointed to polls that show Obama tied with Romney but 12 points ahead of Gingrich, suggesting that a Gingrich nomination could cost Republicans control of both houses of Congress. A neutral politician, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has given Gingrich a "sharp rebuke" for one of his attacks on Romney.

A conservative author, Ann Counter, has boosted Romney's conservative credentials by writing, "Romney is 'moderate' only in demeanor ... he doesn't scare people like Gingrich does. Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms were moderate in demeanor, too. No one would call them political moderates." A party elder, Bob Dole, who was Senate majority leader while Gingrich was House speaker, has summarized the experience in his typically blunt way: "I never knew what he was doing or why he was doing it."

After South Carolina, Romney adjusted. Momentum shifted. Polls that showed him losing a week ago now say he will win Florida.

Predictions are always dangerous, so I will not make one. The actual outcome will be the only thing that matters. However, what all of this activity shows is that primaries are more than contests to pick winners. They are testing grounds for candidates, giving them valuable experience in the real world of direct contact with real voters.

The Republican nominee, whomever he turns out to be, will be toughened and better prepared to take on Obama as a result of having gone through the primary cycle.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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