Republican grass roots alienated as two rivals intensify mudslinging in Florida

Romney expected to win primary easily, but Gingrich committed to 'long campaign'

Pompano Beach, Florida

Waiting for Mitt Romney to take the stage in a community hall here, Clint Bard, owner of a garden centre, doesn't think it's asking too much to expect him to skip the nasty attack stuff for once and focus on explaining what he would do if elected president. As if.

Today is primary day in Florida, and nothing about the campaign has been sunny. So ferocious in fact has been the mutual demolition derby between Mr Romney and his main rival, Newt Gingrich, that many Republicans, including grass-roots supporters like Mr Bard, fear that whoever finally emerges as the party's nominee will be too damaged effectively to take on Barack Obama in November.

It has also been prompting fears that a protracted civil war between the old guard establishment for Mitt and the Tea Party grassroots party members for Newt could even lead to a brokered convention in August and, conceivably, the drafting in at the last moment of a new figure entirely. (Did someone say Jeb Bush?)

"I don't understand what the Republicans are doing, but I think it's downright stupid," Mr Bard, 61, notes. "I've had enough of it and I worry they are just setting things up for the Democrats. We are talking about two men here who are meant to be the smartest in the country. When are they going to wake up?"

Not for a while, it seems. Mr Romney and the political action committee that supports him threw the kitchen sink at Mr Gingrich in Iowa, and when he came fifth in New Hampshire they thought him dead and let up. It was a mistake they won't make again. (Recall the double-digit Gingrich blow-out in South Carolina.) It's why it took Mr Romney roughly two minutes to make his first mention of Newt at his rally here in Pompano Beach. He said his "record is one of failed leadership", connected some fuzzy dots between his having consulted for Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lender, and the housing collapse. (Newt caused it.) And he mocked the former speaker as a whiner.

The polls suggest that Mr Romney will easily win today. Moreover, the calendar for February, which includes the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, is stacked in his favour. Meanwhile, he still has lots more money to make lots more attack ads.

But Mr Gingrich has now vowed to keep fighting all the way through to the summer and the convention in the belief that he can prevail if Senator Rick Santorum drops out and the conservative evangelical vote finally consolidates behind him. He wants Mr Romney to know he is not intimidated by him. "I think he's going to find this a long campaign," he told reporters ominously at a rally yesterday.

That this war might continue for months mortifies party leaders in Washington. The only thing worse, though, would be a brokered convention in which neither has enough delegates to secure the nomination. In that scenario delegates for one might start to break ranks and fall behind the other or, even less likely, consider them both damaged goods and seek someone new altogether. Mr Bush, the brother and son of two ex-presidents and the former Florida governor, has stayed entirely aloof from the primary fray and, more interestingly, has deflected overtures for his endorsement from Mr Romney. Is this because he thinks the knock on his door from party elders in August might indeed come?

Most political scholars think talk of a brokered convention and a new candidate is fanciful, however. "More dramatic steps might conceivably happen, including the entry of a new candidate," agrees Gregory Magarian, an expert in US elections at Washington University in St Louis, before adding: "In my view, this is extremely unlikely." Which means who ever wins will wear bloody bandages into the election.

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