Gallup tracking poll puts Romney up nationally by ... one point

Hey, Mitt Romney can finally look at a poll today where he’s leading.  Unfortunately, it’s still bad news for Romney, as the Gallup national tracking poll shows Newt Gingrich has closed to within one point over the last three days.  Romney now leads Gingrich only 29/28, dropping one point while Gingrich rose three overnight.  That means that polling over the last couple of days has gone for Gingrich as the race heads into Florida.

There is more bad news in the poll as well.  Romney continues to do well in Gallup’s polling in the “trial heat” head to head matchup against Obama, scoring a 48/50 against the incumbent.  However, Gingrich picked up four points overnight in the same poll to get to the exact same 48/50 rating, which helps Gingrich make the argument that he’s at least as electable against Obama as Romney.

This makes the stakes for tonight’s debate in Florida that much higher for Romney.  He has to find ways to reverse the momentum and start putting distance between himself and Gingrich, which he started to do yesterday and today by hammering Gingrich over his connection to Freddie Mac.  That’s a rather silly line of attack, though, and Romney has another obstacle in the fact that both of them have very similar positions on issues — and the same track record on them, too.  If Romney wants to take an effective line of attack tonight, he should concentrate entirely on Gingrich’s fall from grace with Republicans the last time he was trusted with a national leadership position and contrast that with his own successful executive experience. That’s probably the only issue that will have conservatives reconsidering their recent adoption of Gingrich as the alternative to Mr. Inevitable.

For Gingrich, the strategy tonight will have to be finding a balance between attacking Romney and demonstrating statesmanship in the GOP.  He achieved that last debate by attacking the media more than Romney, but we’ll see if NBC provides Gingrich that opportunity tonight.  Gingrich learned in Iowa that he can’t go all soft-focus in debates or on the campaign trail, and perhaps relearned James Carville’s old political adage that your opponent can’t land a punch while you have your fist in their face.  The tax return issue is off the table now, though, and Gingrich can’t effectively attack on the RomneyCare program he hailed six years ago in his own newsletters.

Rick Santorum certainly can, though, and will against both Gingrich and Romney.  This is the last week that Santorum will have a clear shot at trying to capture some momentum for himself.  After Thursday’s debate, there are none scheduled until February 22nd, and then none again until March.  Santorum’s shoestring campaign can’t buy enough media to make his case effectively against Gingrich and Romney, so he has to do what he did in the second South Carolina debate last week and hope it works better in Florida. He’s trailing at the 11% mark nationally and in Florida, and if Santorum can’t pull off a game-changer soon, he’s all but finished.

Ron Paul will be an afterthought in Florida, where he’s not competing actively, but not in tonight’s debate; NBC will make sure of that.  Paul will always be Paul, so discussing his strategy is moot to a certain extent, but it will be interesting to see whether he goes after Romney and/or Gingrich and to what extent.  If he attacks Romney to the exclusion of all others, Gingrich will send over a fruit basket later.  If he goes after both, he might end up helping Santorum, with whom he has tangled more often in previous debates.  If Paul goes after Santorum, it will prove he’s not terribly serious at all, but even that might help Santorum in Florida.