It’s likely too little, too late for the Florida primary, which tallies all votes on Tuesday but has allowed early voting since Jan. 21. Several polls show Mitt Romney with a Florida lead of roughly 10 points over Gingrich with more than half a million votes already cast.
But Cain’s endorsement does one very important long-term thing: It turns the Romney vs. Not-Romney clash that has so far defined the GOP primary into an unmistakable Establishment vs. Tea Party showdown.
Cain joins Sarah Palin and Rick Perry in backing Gingrich. Palin has not issued an official endorsement of Gingrich, but she’s come close and has been defending him regularly in the past two weeks. Two days ago she declared on Fox News, “Look at Newt Gingrich, what’s going on with him via the establishment’s attacks. They’re trying to crucify this man and rewrite history and rewrite what it is that he has stood for all these years.”
So in one corner it’s Gingrich, Palin, Perry, and now Cain.
In the opposing corner of the Republican Party it’s Romney and virtually every member of the GOP Establishment, including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain and former president George H. W. Bush. Consider that 73 members of Congress have endorsed Romney, compared to only 11 for Gingrich.
In 2010 the Tea Party won this battle — to the detriment of the Republican Party. In three key states the Tea Party turned out in large numbers to nominate their preferred candidate over an Establishment choice for the U.S. Senate seat, and that Tea Party candidate subsequently lost an eminently winnable general election to a Democratic opponent. Punditry wisdom is that the Tea Party cost Republicans control of or at least an even split in the U.S. Senate.
Nevada and Colorado are two of those three states in which the Tea Party toppled the Establishment — and that’s where the Republican presidential contest moves after Florida counts votes on Tuesday.
Nevada holds its “First in the West” caucus on Saturday, and three days later on Tuesday, Feb. 7, Colorado holds its party caucus. Another Tea Party-heavy-state, Arizona, holds a Republican primary on Feb. 28. Victories in caucuses depend on a fired-up body of supporters.
Here’s my thought: Cain’s endorsement is targeted by the Gingrich campaign to influence voters in those states, not Florida. When candidates are on a trajectory to lose a state, they spend the last few days of that state’s campaign laying the foundation for the next states in line.
Gingrich may lose Florida, but he is leading in the national polls and he’s emerging as the Tea Party candidate. The Republican Party Establishment has been trying to avoid this kind of showdown, but it is now here.