Gingrich’s lackluster debate performances permanently undercut the strongest rationale for his candidacy.
In truth, the idea that the former speaker’s skills as a debater would give him a significant general-election edge over President Obama was never particularly plausible. Still, many Republican primary voters seemed to be believe it: The promise of a Lincoln-Douglas-style showdown with the president has been one of Gingrich’s more effective rhetorical flourishes, and his showstopping performances in South Carolina were crucial to his upset victory.
But it’s hard to see how Gingrich’s Master Debater reputation recovers from his poor showings in the debates in Florida. Even if he stays in the race long enough to get another crack at Romney, voters will always remember that he can be bested – that if you prick him, he might just bleed. Once lost, an aura of invincibility is an awfully hard thing to regain.
Without his debating magic, Gingrich doesn’t have any cards left to play. He won Herman Cain’s endorsement in Florida, but it didn’t help his cause. Sarah Palin had his back, but it didn’t seem to matter. Sheldon Adelson funded his ads, but Romney still massively outspent him. Santorum could have dropped out, and Gingrich still would have lost by double-digits.