TAMPA, Florida—Mitt Romney is expected to win in Florida tonight by a large margin, according to the exit polls that will be used to call the race an hour from now, when polls close on the Panhandle. (UPDATE: Romney has indeed defeated Gingrich by double digits.)
Tonight’s results appear set to answer one question: Who will be the Republican nominee?
It now seems clear that the man taking the stage at the Republican National Convention in August at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be Mitt Romney. Period. Finito. Game over.
Romney is the only candidate with the money and organization to go all the way, and nothing to date has changed that. His opponents are all struggling for their political lives, while his own campaign is stronger than ever despite weeks of attacks.
In fact, he finally seems to be enjoying life on the campaign trail, letting his enthusiasm shine through the polished exterior.
But tonight’s vote also leaves several questions to be answered in the months and weeks ahead.
Does Newt Gingrich want to be Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin?
Gingrich and Romney are blood enemies right now, and it's hard to imagine someone who accused his rival of snatching kosher food from Holocaust survivors standing beaming on the stage beside him tomorrow.
But wait a week.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exchanged harsh attacks, and undisguised ill-will, through the long spring of 2008. But after a round of painful negotiations, Obama's old rival became his most effective advocate and ultimately his Secretary of State. Her very criticism had made her a more valued supporter.
This race appears set to end earlier than the 2008 primary, and Gingrich now faces the choice Clinton did in May and June: Does he start toning down the attacks in preparation for a rapprochement? Or does he just keep swinging.
It's not too late for Gingrich to be a conservative standard-bearer in Romney's camp, explaining the profound and meaningful things he and his old rival have in common, and the deep and frightening differences between Romney and Obama. But Gingrich is also near the point of no return, and of exile to the political space now occupied by a fading Sarah Palin: Toast of talk radio and of some conservative leaders, commanding hefty speaking fees, but banned from the corridors of Republican power.
Watch Gingrich's concession speech tonight for a glimpse at which path he chooses.
Does Rick Santorum want to be Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingrich?
With Gingrich burning out fast, Santorum may find himself the last man standing. He's raised and saved money effectively, and met a wave of sympathy in response to dropping off the trail to care for his sick daughter, Bella.
When he returns to battle for conservative votes in Nevada, he will choose — in his comments to the media and his television ads — how hard he wants to attack Romney. Is he trying to find the pebble that will slay Goliath? Or just trying to enhance his own stature, with a view to a post in the Romney Administration?
Though Santorum has tangled effectively with Romney over health care and other issues, he remains well this side of the line that Gingrich now straddles; after tonight, he needs to decide what he's running for.
Will Ron Paul succeed in tricking the media into believing he’s a serious candidate for President?
Fresh off campaigning in the “important” early caucus state of Maine, Paul was in Denver today and has pledged to contest caucus states across the country. Behind him are a small cohort of reporters and videographers from major news organizations with the resources to follow him around.
Paul didn’t formally drop out in 2008, and he’s pledging to go on to the convention this year. But Paul won’t have the delegates to be the nominee when this is all over, and sooner or later the media will lose interest.
Paul is now only relevant in-as-much as his supporters continue to refuse to back Romney. For Romney’s general election chances, this may be the most important question of them all.