TAMPA, Fla. -- The conventional wisdom for much of the fall was that February would be a very difficult month for any of Mitt Romney's challengers. That was until Newt Gingrich won South Carolina.
Gingrich's Palmetto State romp over Romney, followed by the initial polls in Florida showing the former House Speaker from Georgia surging ahead of the former Massachusetts governor here, recast the entire nomination fight.
Suddenly, an alternate universe presented itself as a real possibility. With its dearth of contests except for a few caucus states, February looked like it could be a turbulent month of pressure on Romney if the last big mark on the calendar was a big fat "L" in his column for the Sunshine state.
Sure, Romney would probably still do well in the first week of February even if Gingrich won Florida. Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are far ahead of Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in organizing for the four caucuses in Maine, Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado. But Gingrich's momentum would likely be so strong that it would overshadow any meager wins for Romney in the caucus states, preserving the former speaker's status as the frontrunner.
And Romney would have had to fight the notion that he was incapable of winning over Republican voters for nearly three weeks until Michigan and Arizona held their primaries on Feb. 28.
Over the past week, however, as Romney has outperformed Gingrich at two debates and as he and outside groups have outspent Gingrich on the TV airwaves, he has moved back ahead of Gingrich in the polls, and now looks set to win Florida's 50 delegates on Tuesday. The conventional wisdom is back: February will be a winter of discontent for Gingrich, not Romney.
"If Newt had won Florida then he might have been able to become the frontrunner, but that's not what's happened," Charlie Black, a veteran Republican political consultant and a Washington lobbyist, told The Huffington Post. "Romney's going to win it and have great momentum going into a friendly calendar."
Gingrich has pointed to Gallup's national tracking poll, which on Friday showed him leading Romney 32 percent to 24 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters. But as quickly as polling numbers have moved up and down in the states where Romney and Gingrich are fighting hand to hand, the national polling numbers have been seen as a lagging indicator instead of a leading one.
"I think you will see Newt lose his national lead soon, and [he] has no place in the short term to recover momentum," said Matthew Dowd, a political strategist who worked for former President George W. Bush.
Four states will hold caucuses in early February: Nevada on Feb. 4, Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7, and Maine's Republicans for a week with results to announced on Feb. 11.
Dowd pointed out that there are no debates until Feb. 22, depriving Gingrich of his best opportunity to score big points.
"He has a tough few weeks ahead of him. He needed to win Florida to keep things going through this hard period," Dowd said.
Gingrich was defiant on Saturday, vowing to stay in the race until the summer and to campaign "state by state."
"I will go all the way to the convention," Gingrich said.
But at some point, if Gingrich loses Florida, money will talk, and it will tell Gingrich he should drop out. Of course, he might not listen, just like he did not listen to those who said he was finished last summer when all of his top advisers quit his campaign.
It's also not clear how long Gingrich will continue receiving financial support, indirectly, from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson and his wife have now contributed $10 million to a super PAC supporting Gingrich, which has allowed Gingrich to stay somewhat competitive on TV with Romney.
Before Adelson gave his initial $5 million to Winning Our Future, there were reports that he was preparing to give $20 million to Gingrich's cause. That did not materialize, but that number could represent the ultimate ceiling of his contributions. Yet at some point, Adelson may decide not to throw good money after bad. And he could also come under significant pressure from others in the Republican party to stop giving to Gingrich if it looks like his friend is just staying in the race to make life difficult for Romney.
On Saturday, Romney supporters authorized by the campaign to speak on behalf of the candidate -- known in the political world as "surrogates" -- began to frame the Gingrich campaign as running out of steam already.
"If you look here, there's almost nobody at this," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a Romney endorser, who attended Gingrich's Hispanic Town Hall event in Orlando and gestured around at the lackluster attendance. "This is -- there's almost no one here."
Mack said an attempt by Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond to engage him in a debate on Saturday morning at a Gingrich event in Port St. Lucie -- which was captured on video -- was a sign that the Gingrich campaign is "desperate."
"At first he tries to act like a reporter, like he's asking questions, with a recorder. Of course we all know who he is. So we know he's not a reporter. But then he just shouts over you, bullies you, those types of things. That's fine. I think it just shows the erratic nature of the campaign and how unhinged they are," Mack told HuffPost's Amanda Terkel. "You can just tell this is a campaign in decline."
Most observers expect Gingrich and Santorum to stay in the race at least through Super Tuesday on March 6.
But among the 11 contests on Super Tuesday, only Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee are contests that tilt in Gingrich's favor, Black said. Gingrich is not even on the ballot in Virginia, one of the biggest primaries that day.
The volatility of this GOP primary -- driven by the search among conservatives for an alternative to Romney -- means things could take another turn in Gingrich's favor, or Santorum's, at any moment.
But if the current trend continues and Romney wins Florida and then goes on to dominate February and Super Tuesday, the roots of Gingrich's demise will trace back to his failure to land a punch on Romney at the debates this past week on Monday and Thursday.
If that's the case, Gingrich's end will defy what many expected: instead of committing some outsized gaffe and exiting the race with a bang, he will have missed his moment and instead gone out with a whimper.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting from Orlando.
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