The GOP field will have its last debate before the Florida primary tonight, and it just might be a doozy. Here's why:
- Newt Gingrich's polling advantage may have vanished. The latest CNN poll has Mitt Romney at 36% and Gingrich at 34%, a statistical tie, and a far cry from some of Gingrich's earlier numbers.
- Nate Silver says his statistical model now rates Gingrich's chance of victory at 60%—a huge dip from the 75% it predicted yesterday. But looking at polling trends, Silver thinks Romney might actually be a slight favorite.
- All of which underscores the stakes for Gingrich tonight, writes Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal. Gingrich surged in South Carolina thanks to "searing debate performances," of the kind he didn't deliver Monday. Since he's being outspent badly, tonight is "his best, and perhaps last, opportunity" to "consolidate the party's populist wing."
- Gingrich is winning by one metric at least: His crowds are drastically larger than Mitt Romney's, the New York Times reports. Romney's never managed more than a couple hundred, whereas Gingrich draws thousands.
- …Which means Gingrich has lots of practice in front of the kind of raucous crowds these debates tend to have. That rowdiness is by design, the Times reveals: hosts have been deliberately hyping audiences into frenzies before debates.