Opinion: Ash Tuesday: After the Florida primary, Republicans embrace a self-destructive primary season

Posted by Brendan James

At long last the GOP race has become something captivating, which is not to say something dignified. The two Republican frontrunners, the fox and the hedgehog, are now pursuing victory with what might be most accurately described as reckless abandon.

Florida's primary inaugurated a volley of rancorous attack ads that have set the pace for the rest of the contest. Before our eyes the supposedly reticent Mitt Romney defanged the usually pugnacious Newt Gingrich in the final Jacksonville debate. Fidel Castro watched from home and enjoyed some free publicity. And Jeb Bush, mercifully, didn't even have to open his mouth.

Let us not get bogged down in the storm of contradictions the candidates brought down upon the residents of Florida as they swept through the state. From Romney's courageous pledge to protect Medicare despite his support for the Ryan plan, to Gingrich's pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem despite his support for a two-state solution, neither could be said to have out-pandered the other. Nor is it easy to tell which campaign ran the nastier ads (though Newt might have the edge here claiming that Romney starved elderly Jewish Bostonians of their matzo).

No, what tipped the scales in Romney's favor was his newfound register of emotion, even if it did send him over the edge, into song and occasional mad laughter.

Though the Romney campaign's technicians have not yet programmed their candidate with the full spectrum of human feeling – let them tinker a little longer – his indignant aggression at the last debate was enough. The significance of Romney's Jacksonville performance was not simply that he finally took a firm swipe back at Meister Gingrich, sending his opponent into a timid, apologetic retreat, but that he did so with a furrowed brow and a crackle in his voice. Newt was not the only one flabbergasted by this sudden spark of vitality; Romney's numbers began to rise among voters looking for both electability and strong debate performance. Even mere simulation of human sentiments does a lot for a candidate that has hitherto been viewed as a cold, calculating opportunist who raids ailing businesses and hides his tax returns.

But before we make too much of this new and more dynamic Romney software, we must give due credit to his relentless, routine, and decidedly un-human tactics offstage. Romney outspent Gingrich five times over, blanketing the airwaves as his trusty Super PAC filled any gaps of decency. Moving forward, Romney might have to finally confront criticism of this two-faced approach: smiling (and singing) through the debates and speeches while orchestrating an elaborate smear campaign – which is to say, his presidential campaign – from the shadows.

Enough with the moralizing: it worked. Gingrich's national lead is fizzling, although it is not as though he was helping himself with his grand, inane narrative about moon colonies that was supposed to tempt voters on the Space Coast. It seems that voters in Cocoa Beach and Palm Bay aren't so easily bamboozled and do consider economic recovery more desirable than a massive expansion of a hyper-costly government agency.

In fact, Floridians in general aren't so easily hoodwinked by these mind-numbing gestures. The most telling numbers from Tuesday night are not Romney's or Newt's, but the exit polls that showed 38% of voters were completely unsatisfied with the field of Republican candidates. This low enthusiasm for either frontrunner combined with the concentrated yet feverish enthusiasm for Ron Paul might spell out a greater relevancy for everyone's favorite anarcho-capitalist in coming months. It also raises questions of a brokered convention, which only increases the anxiety of Newt and Mitt and sends them into more vicious and gnarly backbiting.  

There is no going back. These two endlessly ambitious yet boundlessly unappealing candidates have decided to throw their party into a blender this primary season. They spent last week sharpening the blades.

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