JACKSONVILLE, Florida -- In his most ferocious debate performance to date Thursday night, Mitt Romney very well may have dealt the death blow to Newt Gingrich's campaign for president.
But don't expect any mercy from Team Romney: speaking to reporters after the debate, they made clear that they won't rest until their rival's candidacy is dead, embalmed and buried.
Asked whether Romney could now return his focus to attacking President Obama's record, having clinched the Florida nomination with his solid performance, media consultant Stu Stevens quickly demurred: "No no no no no no no," he insisted. "One night does not - just, no."
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, was similarly cautious not to sound too confident: "Well, I'm not going to make any predictions as to the outcome on Tuesday."
The reluctance to rest on their laurels makes sense; after all they've been here before. For example, compare Fehrnstrom's muted response Thursday night to his nigh-hubristic spin following the final debate before the New Hampshire primary earlier this month.
"I think [Romney's opponents] all came into the debate with the view that this was their last opportunity to knock Governor Romney off his game, and they failed," he told BuzzFeed at the time.
Of course, after that "last opportunity," Gingrich managed to surge in South Carolina and steal a win in the state where Romney had virtually declared victory already. This time, they're not going to take anything for granted, said campaign policy director Lahnee Chen.
"The amount of volatility between maybe four or five days before South Carolina and today--I mean, it's just been like 20 points back and forth," Chen said. "Who knows what's going to happen here? I mean, it's such a big state, it such a diverse state... it's much more unpredictable."
To ensure a primary victory, campaign staffers said, they have no plans to pivot to an above-the-fray frontrunner strategy. They will continue to hit Gingrich hard ever day until one of them gives their last concession speech.
"We are committed to ensuring that every Republican primary voter in Florida knows all about Speaker Gingrich," Chen said.
Asked whether Romney would start talking about the incumbent rather than Gingrich, Fehnrstrom said, "I think you'll hear both," adding, "I think you saw the governor tried to do both tonight."
As for their lines of attack, expect to hear plenty more about Gingrich's role as a "Washington insider," and a continuation of their effort to cast him as a narcissistic, erratic wild card.
But on Thursday night, expanding on comments Romney made during the debate, the candidate's spinners tested out a new rap on Gingrich: that he's a pork-promising panderer.
"When he was in New Hampshire, he was promising a new VA hospital even though there's one in Boston just an hour's drive away," Fehrnstrom said. "When he was in South Carolina he was promising a new interstate highway. When he was out in Iowa he was practically drinking ethanol. Here in Florida he's promising... potentially a trillion-dollar space colonization program. This is the type of pork mentality that caused us to lose our triple-A credit rating."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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