(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beams during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary election Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
Mitt Romney and the Republican elite unleashed their full arsenal against Newt Gingrich in Florida—and it paid off big. In a near-total reversal of the results in South Carolina ten days earlier, the former Massachusetts governor won an emphatic, double-digit victory on Tuesday.
With a five-to-one spending advantage, and a coordinated media assault on Gingrich, the Romney forces went all in for a devastating beat-down in Florida. With their candidate outperforming Gingrich in two debates last week, and with the Georgian muddling his anti-establishment message, they got it. Most GOP primary-goers said their most important consideration was which candidate could beat President Obama, and exit polls showed Romney winning that group by 25 percent. Republican women gave Romney a 22-point edge over Gingrich. And the former house speaker’s two most important constituencies let him down: The exit polls showed both Tea Partiers and evangelicals dividing their votes between Romney and Gingrich.
With Romney racking up a huge advantage in absentee and early votes, the outcome was clear well before the polls closed. His victory speech came only a half-hour after the race was called, as a sea of tanned arms and tiny American flags bobbed joyfully in his Tampa headquarters. “You’re the best, Florida!” Romney exclaimed. “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us. And we will win.”
In his brief and tidy remarks, Romney offered his characteristic litany of contrasts with President Obama, whom he painted as a pointy-headed European socialist. He promised to build a larger military without new taxes—and to balance the budget simultaneously. And he offered, at the end of his speech, a stab at Reagan-style nostalgic uplift, asking Republicans to “remember” a better America—one where “our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”
Twenty-five minutes after Romney beamed his way off stage, Gingrich spoke from a symbolically rickety “46 States To Go” podium in Orlando. Rediscovering the anti-establishment voice that won him South Carolina, Gingrich declined to congratulate Romney, instead claiming Florida’s results as a victory of sorts. Coming after South Carolina, he said, “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.”
Lighting repeatedly into “the establishment of both parties,” Gingrich delivered a fiery address and vowed, “We’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months.” He’ll do it, he said, with “not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street-funded campaign—a people’s campaign.”
It was a stemwinder—vintage, defiant Newt. The mystery, as he left Florida, is why this candidate went missing for ten of this campaign’s most crucial days—and how many of those remaining 46 states he can actually now contest.