The fundamentals of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign are strong. Even in the wake of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's surging momentum in South Carolina, the fact remains that Romney is the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican nomination -- and Saturday's primary won't do anything to change that.
That's not to poo-poo Gingrich's comeback. The former speaker's recovery in South Carolina has come against all odds, including sustained attacks from a pro-Romney super PAC, a damaging tell-all interview from his second wife, a sustained push by social conservatives to unite behind Rick Santorum, and the fact that Gingrich is still running a campaign virtually bereft of the infrastructure that past serious candidates have needed to win key primary states.
Gingrich's roller-coaster ride in public-opinion polls began its initial climb thanks to strong performances in debates in November. His revival, after a barrage of attack ads in Iowa, came thanks to two more strong performances this week and his wise decision to abandon a high-road strategy that has never been rewarded in presidential politics in favor of mixing it up with front-running Romney.
But Gingrich is living a hand-to-mouth existence, while Romney has sowed seeds he can reap later on in other states. The Republican presidential campaign is, at the end, a race for 1,144 delegates, and the former Massachusetts governor's campaign is in a far better position to harvest those delegates in later primaries.
So far, Romney has collected an estimated 14 delegates, thanks to his performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, while Gingrich has just two. South Carolina will award 28 delegates, likely split between the four remaining candidates. The first real delegate prize comes on Jan. 31, when the winner of the Florida primary collects all 50 of the state's delegates.
Gingrich campaigned in Florida briefly last week. Romney has competed in Florida before, and a super PAC that backs his campaign is helping to give him a jump. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent about $300,000 on mailings and $1.5 million on television in Florida this week alone; the filings suggest the television time is dedicated to negative ads focused on Gingrich.
Gingrich gets his chance to share the stage with Romney twice, first on Monday at a debate cosponsored by National Journal, NBC News, and the Tampa Bay Times and then again on Thursday at a CNN/Republican Party of Florida debate in Jacksonville. He will have to hope that once again, strong debate performances will overcome the rush of negative advertisements that has already begun.
After Florida, Gingrich's outlook becomes even more bleak. The February calendar presents Romney with the opportunity to do to Gingrich what Barack Obama did to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Caucuses in Nevada, Colorado, and Minnesota will benefit a more organized campaign, giving Romney and Rep. Ron Paul a boost over Gingrich. The two primaries that month, in Arizona and Michigan, will take place on Romney-friendly turf; Arizona has a sizable Mormon electorate, while Michigan is Romney's home state. By the end of February, Romney is likely to have the majority of the 274 delegates awarded to that point. Paul's focus on caucus states means Gingrich may not even be in second place by the end of the month.
Then comes Super Tuesday, when 10 states will allocate a total of 407 delegates. With few debates left on the horizon, Gingrich won't have the time, the exposure, or the money to build the type of national campaign Romney has already started to build (Gingrich isn't even eligible for the 46 delegates from Virginia; his campaign didn't submit enough valid signatures to make the ballot there).
In short, South Carolina presents Gingrich's last real chance to be on equal footing with Romney before the race goes national. Barring a sustained surge in campaign contributions for Gingrich and a real stumble by Romney's campaign, the reality is that the race for the Republican nod is as clear today as it was before Gingrich's revitalization: There will be no extended fight for delegates a la Obama-Clinton, there will be no brokered convention, and Romney will be the Republican nominee. The deck is stacked too much in Romney's favor to give Gingrich's campaign anything more than a temporary reprieve.
CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect day for the debate cosponsored by National Journal, NBC News, and the Tampa Bay Times. The debate is on Monday night.