Has Newt’s Challenge Hurt Romney or Made Him Stronger?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Craig Lassig / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at a campaign stop in Eagan, Minn., on Feb. 1.

Penn: Newt Gingrich has been a great candidate in the way that the Titanic was a great ship. It has been very attractive to board, but we know where it’s headed. Of course Gingrich believes he is unsinkable, and, for that, Democrats must be very grateful.

So thank you Gingrich for running a negative ad campaign in Florida so that the Democrats don’t have to. You have literally saved the Obama campaign, Democratic National Convention and Democrats around the country millions of dollars. Moreover, you have all but done the work for the Obama opposition research team. From painting Mitt Romney as someone having a “profound character problem” to acting “totally dishonest,” you have torn apart his record at Bain Capital, made him release his tax returns and forced him to deplete his bank account.

Thank you Gingrich for further fragmenting the Republican Party. You have self-declared this GOP nomination a two-person race between yourself, the conservative leader, and Romney, the Massachusetts moderate. In doing so, you are working to depress conservative voter turnout in the general election.

Thank you Gingrich for bringing prolonged drama and grandiose schemes to this primary season. With 46 states to go, you have ample opportunity to remind us of the reasons why moon colonies and farmers in space should be a priority going forward as well as why employing poor children to serve as janitors to earn money is a good Republican idea.

As he did during the ’95-’96 federal government shutdowns, Gingrich is once again bringing his unique brand of brinksmanship to hector Romney and the Republican Party.

(MORE: Larry Doyle: Newt and Mitt are Playing the ‘Stupid’ Card)

Hughes: That which does not kill you makes you stronger. That old adage came to mind as I watched Romney overcome the most serious threat to his campaign thus far with a decisive victory over Gingrich in the important and diverse state of Florida.

To his great credit, Romney seems to be relishing the fight and rising to the occasion. As he said in his well-crafted Florida victory speech, “a competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us.” Candidates rarely enjoy a genuine threat to the survival of their campaigns. But unless it knocks them out, it almost always makes them better. After John McCain dealt a stunning 19-point defeat to then-Governor George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, we had to re-tool. We had let McCain’s attacks against our candidate go unanswered, we realized, and allowed McCain to steal the mantle of reform. We developed a sharp new message describing George W. Bush as a “reformer with results” and contrasted his executive decision-making experience with Sen. McCain’s years in the Senate. Instead of the usual campaign speeches, Gov. Bush began having town hall meetings, where he was forced to answer lots of questions he might have preferred to avoid — but it helped him hone his answers and demonstrate his ability to think on his feet.

The Romney we saw campaigning in Florida lived up to his promise to show that the GOP nomination is worth fighting for. He rose to Newt’s challenge to his frontrunner status with two of his best debate performances. After coming across as both dodging and defensive about his income and income taxes in South Carolina, he delivered a full throated and effective defense of his wealth, saying:

“I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40%. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.”

It was one of the strongest statements of the campaign thus far, and it’s exactly the argument Republicans need to make this fall to confront President Obama and his attempts to attack success and divide Americans based on income. As he fights Newt’s attacks on his tenure at Bain, his record as Governor and his financial success, Romney is refining his message for the fall campaign and ironically, showing that he is what Republicans want most: the candidate capable of taking on and defeating President Obama.

(MORE: Obama Slaps GOP Candidates and Invokes Conservative Themes)