Mitt Romney won the Florida presidential primary Tuesday, taking a long stride toward capturing the GOP nomination and dealing a potentially mortal blow to the hopes of the once-resurgent Newt Gingrich.
The television networks called the race for the Massachusetts governor soon after polls in the westernmost part of the state closed; by that time Romney already held a big lead in the votes already tabulated. The result ended what had become a suspenseless campaign over the last few days, as multiple opinion surveys showed Romney opening a commanding lead.
His victory handed Romney Florida's 50 delegates, the biggest cache yet, but more than that the win shows his ability to capture support in a big, costly and diverse state that will be a major battleground in the fall contest against President Obama.
Speaking to reporters before the polls closed, Romney said he learned a lesson from the double-digit loss he suffered at Gingrich's hands 10 days ago in South Carolina.
“If we’re successful here, it’ll be pretty clear that when attacked you have to respond and you can’t let charges go unanswered,” Romney said after visiting campaign volunteers at a Tampa phone bank. “I needed to make sure that instead of being outgunned in terms of attacks that I responded aggressively. I think I have and hopefully that will serve me well here.”
For his part, Gingrich showed no signs of backing down, or leaving the race any time soon.
“This is a long way from being over,” the former House speaker said while shaking hands Tuesday morning at a church polling place in Orlando. “I'd say June or July, unless Romney drops out earlier.”
“The same people who said I was dead in June, or the people who said I was dead in Iowa, those people?” Gingrich said. “They're about as accurate as they have been the last time they were wrong.”
Romney's victory, while expected, marked a sharp turnabout in fortunes and could be a pivot point in the race for the Republican nomination.
From here, the contest heads Saturday to Nevada, a caucus state that will probably play to his organizational strength, then enters a relative lull. Just a few contests, all of them caucuses, are scheduled before the next big primaries Feb. 28 in Michigan -- a Romney state, where his father served three terms as governor -- and Arizona.
Gingrich came soaring into Florida after his landslide win in South Carolina and quickly surged to the top of some polls. But his momentum dwindled just as quickly after a pair of lackluster debate performances.
Romney, by contrast, revamped his approach in Florida to demonstrate a new, more pugnacious side onstage and undercut one of the major props of Gingrich's candidacy: that he alone has the stuff to take it to Obama. Two-thirds of Florida voters said the debates were important in making up their minds, and Romney apparently helped himself with his well-received showings in Tampa and Jacksonville.
He also benefited from the diluted power of religious conservatives, a group that has been, at best, lukewarm to his candidacy. Fewer than 4 in 10 Florida voters described themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians; in South Carolina, they made up nearly two-thirds of electorate.
The issues Romney raised in Florida were not new. For weeks, he has assailed Gingrich over his conduct in Congress, which resulted in a bipartisan reprimand and record $300,000 ethics fine, and his inside-the-Beltway consulting work after leaving office.
Romney focused in particular on the $1.6 million that Gingrich's firm received from Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage guarantor, which many Republicans blame for the housing crisis that ravaged the nation’s economy and imposed outsized pain on Florida. He accused Gingrich of “selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth.”
With the help of a new speaking coach, Romney pressed his assault without letup, something he had not done since Gingrich's fifth-place finish in Iowa -- a performance that many thought was the end of the former speaker's campaign.
Romney's attacks also took on an unusually personal tone. At one point, he scoffed that Gingrich should “look in the mirror” to understand why his campaign was struggling.
The former congressman responded in kind, calling Romney “totally dishonest” and saying it was impossible to debate someone with his casual relationship with the truth.
But Romney was able to pack far more punch in his attacks. While the two candidates were at rough parity on TV in South Carolina, Romney and his allies outspent Gingrich on the Florida race by nearly 5-to-1, or more than $15 million for Romney to Gingrich's roughly $3 million.
For all of that, Gingrich may end up sticking around longer than Romney and many party leaders would prefer. Because most of the delegates over the next two months will be awarded on a proportional basis, Gingrich can keep adding to his total even if he loses to Romney. Contests in big states like Ohio, New York, Texas and California are weeks or even months away.
Also lurking in the presidential contest are Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Both gave up on Florida, showing up for the debates but not mounting a serious effort.
Paul, who has a small but devout band of followers, is targeting organizationally intensive caucus states in an effort to win delegates to influence the party platform at the Tampa convention.
Santorum, the victor in Iowa by a small margin, has already proved his ability to wage a subsistence campaign and signaled his intention to compete in Colorado and Minnesota, two of this month's caucus states.