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First Thoughts: Beginning of the end?

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Ray Roy sets up a polling station as they prepare for voters on primary day on Jan. 31, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

Will tonight’s Florida primary mark the beginning of the end of the GOP nominating season?... Or just the end of the beginning?... Polls close at 7:00 pm local, but because some Florida counties are in CST, networks won’t call the race until 8:00 pm ET at the earliest… Will February be the cruelest month for Gingrich?... And will it allow for Romney to do something BIG?... Romney’s balancing act… His negatives spike with indies… An ideological split over unemployment benefits… And OR-1 and FEC filing day.

*** The beginning of the end? With Mitt Romney’s expected victory at tonight’s Florida primary, The New York Times asks a very good question: Will it mark the beginning of the end of the GOP nominating season, or will it merely signal the end of the beginning? On the one hand, Romney winning Florida would give him a victory in the largest, most diverse, and electorally important state so far. It would demonstrate his ability to bounce back from a major setback (the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary), as well as his organizational and financial strength. And, as our recent NBC/Marist poll suggests, a Romney win in Florida would represent his most impressive showing with conservative GOP voters outside of New England. As we’ve written before, Romney wouldn’t ever be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination until he won a GOP contest with support from the conservative/Tea Party base of the party. Florida might give him that kind of victory tonight.

*** Or is it just the end of the beginning? On the other hand, you could argue that the Republican nominating contest is far from being over. For starters, Newt Gingrich has vowed to “go all the way to the convention.” After all, Hell hath no fury like a presidential candidate who believes he’s been scorned. Ron Paul’s campaign will continue, too. Remember, even after John Kerry won all the early contests in ’04, Howard Dean didn’t end his campaign until after Super Tuesday and after Wisconsin. What’s more, there’s a LONG way to go mathematically. After tonight’s contest, just 115 delegates (or projected delegates) will have been awarded, but it officially will take 1,144 delegates out of a total of 2,286 to clinch the nomination. So we’re just 5% of the way through, and don’t be surprised if you hear that stat from Gingrich today. Finally, every time we think this race (or Newt Gingrich, for that matter) is over, we find out we’re wrong. And why are we wrong? Because it's clear the activist conservative base (read: tea party) just isn't satisified with Romney and they aren't going to roll over this fast. What has been clear is that this Republican nominating contest -- even if we’re just 5% of the way finished -- has taken a toll on Romney, especially among independents (more on that below).

With a comfortable lead in the Florida polls, Mitt Romney is displaying confidence ahead of today's Republican presidential primary. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** The skinny on tonight’s primary: Polls close tonight in Florida at 7:00 pm local. Yet because some of the state’s counties are in the Central Time Zone, that means the earliest the networks can call the race is at 8:00 pm ET. At stake are 50 delegates (Florida lost half of total when it was penalized for moving up to Jan. 31), and it’s winner take all.

*** Will February be the cruelest month for Gingrich? As we’ve said before, February promises to be a cruel month for Gingrich and a pretty good one for Romney. Per NBC’s John Bailey, the next contests are Nevada and Maine (Feb. 4); Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri (Feb. 7); and Arizona and Michigan (Feb. 28). After all, Romney won Nevada -- which has a large Mormon population -- four years ago, and he also won in his home state of Michigan. In addition, the caucus format in Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota will benefit strong, organized campaigns like Romney’s and Paul’s. Note: Missouri’s primary on Feb. 7 is non-binding; its results have no bearing on allocating the state’s delegates. Lucky for Gingrich, that's the case since he's NOT on that beauty contest ballot.

*** Will February allow for Romney to do something big? So we all know that February is going to be a cruel month for Gingrich. But what does Romney do in the meantime to improve some of his shortcomings? It almost seems as if Romney needs to do something BIG, something that adds to his narrative – which, right now, is that he’s a really rich guy who understands how the economy works (though Dems would add "how the economy works for HIM). What is the lesson we learned from Herman Cain? He took off (albeit temporarily) because he was selling something big (his 9-9-9 flat tax plan). By the way, when was the last time Romney talked about his 59-point economic plan?

*** Romney’s balance-beam act: Right now, Newt Gingrich has an interesting assortment of allies. Fred Thompson. Herman Cain. Michael Reagan. What do these folks have in common? They are conservative talk-radio heroes. (And you could even add Sarah Palin, who wants the GOP nominating contest to continue, to this group.) This presents a challenge for Romney: Yes, the lesson he and his campaign learned from South Carolina is that they have to continue to pummel Gingrich, and the Romney campaign today is holding a conference call with Nevada allies to hammer Newt in that state. But at the same time, Team Romney can’t entirely alienate Gingrich and his conservative supporters. So how does he walk that fine line? He eventually needs these folks in the tent.

Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images

From governor's son to presidential contender, a look at the life of Republican Mitt Romney.


*** Romney’s negatives spike with independents: It’s also clear that this whole race -- at least so far -- hasn’t helped Romney’s image among the very people needs to win over if he’s the GOP nominee: independents. According to our recent NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s negatives with independents jumped 13 points in the past month -- which saw eight nationally televised debates since our last poll, as well as now four bitter GOP contests -- and 20 points since November. In November’s poll, he stood at 21%/22% with indies; by December, it was 21%/29%; and last week, he was 22%/42%. (Full write up here.) That should be a major red flag for the Romney campaign. One thing’s clear: Romney might have emerged as a better debater from the bruising primary process, but it has taken a toll on his image with the middle. And there’s probably no one who wants this fight over with sooner that Romney.

*** Ideological split over unemployment benefits: At first glance at two policy questions in the NBC/WSJ poll, there appears to be broad support for extending the payroll tax cut until the end of the year (55% good idea, 17% bad idea) and continuing to provide unemployment benefits for those out of work up to 99 weeks (52%/33%). But when you dig into the numbers, very different pictures emerge. For the payroll tax cut, support is broad and non-ideological. But for unemployment benefits, it’s the opposite -- a real partisan divide emerges. Among Democrats, it’s 69%/18%, independents 57%/26%. But with Republicans, the idea is wildly unpopular -- 29%/55%. It also breaks down along racial lines, with whites being much less likely to think it’s a good idea (47%/38%) versus African Americans (78%/11%) and Hispanics (56%/25%). Interestingly, among those who think the economy will get better over the next 12 months, 65% say it’s a good idea. But among those who say the economy will get worse, just 35% say so.

*** On the trail: Before tonight’s polls close in Florida, Gingrich makes a handful of stops in the Sunshine State… Santorum holds his primary-night watch party in Nevada -- not Florida… And Ron Paul stumps in Colorado.

Duricka / AP

Historian, author, member of Congress and speaker of the House — a look back at his public life.

*** OR-1 and FEC filing day: Also, don’t forget that today’s the special congressional election to fill David Wu’s vacant seat in Oregon. Politico: “Democrat Suzanne Bonamici holds a comfortable lead over Republican Rob Cornilles in public polling heading into the last day of balloting in the vote-by-mail special election to replace disgraced former Democratic Rep. David Wu. Republicans glumly acknowledge there’s little reason to expect the kind of upset the GOP scored last fall.” The DCCC spent A LOT of money on this race; some might argue TOO much. But as they will argue, a loss of this special would have been DEVASTATING to their national narrative of keeping the House in play. So overpaying to avoid that storyline was worth it to them. And it’s FEC filing day, and we’ll also be able to see the contributions to the Super PACs.Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 4 days

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 35 days
Countdown to Election Day: 280 days

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