The Republican presidential battle is set to be a fiery one, with the resurgent Newt Gingrich and on-the-defensive Mitt Romney locking horns on Jan. 31. Both front runners have just eight days left to impress the most unsettled Republican voters of recent times.
In this context, the Florida debate on Monday night will see Romney and Gingrich at their dueling best. All the Republican frontrunners, by now, have learned that television debates are the key to the voters' mind.
Romney, realizing his mistake regarding his hesitance to reveal tax returns, has decided to correct it by disclosing returns for the last two years, which he will do on Tuesday. Gingrich, meanwhile, will leverage on his debate skills to sustain his momentum and image as a changed person.
The stakes are high for both candidates. After his stinging defeat to Gingrich, Romney no longer has the aura of inevitability to protect him. Gingrich, on the other hand, will have to work hard to prove his South Carolina win was not a fluke. The candidates, therefore, appear to be on relatively equal footing.
Gingrich has tasted the victory that eluded him for considerable periods of time. He has also learned, in good time, to use the right weapons against his rivals. His speech also indicates he has decided to leverage on his strength as an orator. He won South Carolina convincingly because he timed his attack on Romney (over the issue of tax returns) and successfully gathered audience sympathy and support through his emotional arguments.
Furthermore, his explosion against the media in the CNN - South Carolina debate got him a standing ovation and applause from the audience, although he later said the South Carolina win was more about how he articulated his idea than his debating skills. However, he could generate a sort of enthusiasm around himself and among the voters - he seems to connect with voters easily - which Romney, so far, has not been able to emulate.
The debate (and not just the forthcoming Florida one) could be scenes of intense battle, as the candidates look to attack each other at every possible opportunity.
We've proven here in South Carolina that people of power, with the right ideas, beat big money, Gingrich said in his victory speech, providing an insight into how future anti-Romney attacks may go. He further said, while attacking Romney's pro-establishment image that he was not representing Wall Street or the politicians in Washington.
Gingrich also received considerable support from Conservatives in South Carolina, which is matter of concern for Romney who is still struggling to change his moderate image.
However, Romney has his own advantages in the Florida game. The biggest among the early polling states, Florida poses logistical and monetary challenges for the campaigners. Florida is among the costliest states, as far as media airtime expenses are concerned. Furthermore, it has a diversified population - a mixture of conservatives, evangelicals, Hispanics and liberals - which is a challenge for the candidates' campaigns.
Romney has pockets deep enough that he can buy the required air time on the state's visual media networks and has a strong enough organization that can campaign throughout the state. Moreover, he does know how to inflict the maximum damage on Gingrich. His speech, soon after the South Carolina primary, indicated a return to the same strategy that saw his rival's collapse, from first in the trial polls to fourth in Iowa, all in a week's time.
Romney was at his attacking best at a rally in Ormond Beach, where he questioned Gingrich's record as U.S House Speaker and called him a failed leader, according to a New York Times report.
He's been working as a lobbyist, selling influence around Washington, said Romney criticizing Gingrich as a Washington-insider.
Gingrich, meanwhile, does have considerable personal and professional baggage, which Romney will be more than happy to exploit through negative ads.
Finally, although it does look like a two-horse race in Florida, the former Penn. Senator, Rick Santorum, has been touring the state, reminding Republican voters he is still there. On the other hand, it appears Texas Rep. Ron Paul is not concentrating on Florida, even though he has double-digit support, according to the latest trial polls.
Either way, Florida citizens are going to witness a wild chase, both in the debates and in a barrage of attacking ads that are going to bombard televisions this week.