Newt's fight represents the fight of Conservative Inc vs. the Establishment.

Florida voters are heading to the polls today. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been battling it out in a fierce primary battle, but Newt’s initial lead in the state slipped badly after two lackluster debate performances and a flood of negative ads. Nate Silver’s final forecast for the state gives Romney a towering fifteen point lead over the former speaker as voters shamble toward the voting booth.

Yet Gingrich remains defiant, feisty, a fighter – depending on the news article you’re reading. Everyone agrees: in the face of almost certain defeat, Gingrich is staring into the steely eyes of defeat unflinchingly. As if he has some other choice.

What puzzles me about coverage of a moment like this is how obvious it is. Naturally Gingrich remains defiant. It’s not his character that demands this, nor is it the slim chance of a surprise victory. This is simply what all candidates do in a tight race. Do pundits and reporters really expect Gingrich to put his tail between his legs prior to the final tally in Florida?

What makes Gingrich unique, possibly, is his stubborn insistence on racing all the way to the convention. A losing and costly run would certainly be interesting, but I’m not sure that even as stubborn a candidate as Gingrich can make it actually happen. These things cost money, and Gingrich may not have enough even with his wealthy benefactors.

And yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of hate. Gingrich has developed a deep and abiding hatred of Mitt Romney. Hate may indeed fuel him where money cannot. The broad and persistent conservative distrust and dislike of Mitt Romney may imbue Newt’s campaign with the energy it needs to nip at Romney’s heels much longer than we’d normally expect.

This reveals an interesting divide in the conservative movement, outlining a puzzling dichotomy within the Republican party that has been emerging these past four years. On the one hand there are the conventional party elites, and on the other there is the vanguard of the conservative movement – what Sean Scallon has described aptly as Conservative Inc. Neither of these tribes holds a monopoly on influence or power and both sit uneasily on the same side of many issues.

It’s never easy to tell who inhabits which faction. Each side holds so much sway over the other and uses the other to further its own designs that it’s easy for a casual observer to see them as a monolithic entity. The divisions may be inscrutable, but that doesn’t mean that the party or the movement is at all unified.

The Tea Party was largely a manifestation of Conservative Inc., fueled by talk radio and Fox News. Sarah Palin quickly became a figurehead of Conservative Inc. whereas her running mate, John McCain, remained a creature of the establishment despite his claims to Maverickiness. Now long-time Washington insider Newt Gingrich is donning the mantle of Conservative Inc. and running against the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney.

But where the chips are falling is what’s really revealing about this primary season. Ann Coulter – a Conservative Inc. pundit if ever there was one – has slammed Gingrich as no true conservative. Plenty of talking heads on Fox have said the same. Meanwhile Rush Limbaugh has come to the former speaker’s defense, while Mormon talk-show host and Tea Party hero Glenn Beck has taken the side of the establishment.

All of which is to say that the division between Conservative Inc – the talk radio and grassroots wing of the conservative movement – and the capital-”E” Establishment wing of the GOP is not so bright and clear as we may have once believed. Perhaps this is a symptom of the candidates themselves. Gingrich and Romney both have records that should make conservatives and moderates alike grimace. No clear representative of either camp remains in the race, and certainly this election season no unity candidate has emerged.

Whatever the case, the divisions between the Republican party and the conservative movement have never been at once so clear and so confounding.

Either way, Democrats are very, very lucky this year. Barack Obama is perhaps the luckiest recession president who ever ran for reelection.

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