Mitt Romney’s resounding victory over Newt Gingrich in Tuesday’s Florida primary put the former Massachusetts governor firmly back on track to claim the Republican presidential nomination after arguably one of the ugliest political clashes of recent times.
With 46 percent of the vote to Gingrich’s 32 percent, Romney made an impressive showing among practically every element of his party except the most conservative of voters and swept to victory in practically every corner of the sprawling state.
But whether his strong comeback after a disastrous loss toGingrich in South Carolina is the beginning of the wrap-up of the GOP presidential nomination battle or simply a milestone in a growing blood feud between him and Gingrich that may tear their party to shreds is far from clear.
Romney sought to paper over his differences with Gingrich and his two other rivals, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in a victory speech last night in Tampa that shifted the focus to challenging President Obama this fall. “Primary contests are not easy – and they’re not supposed to be,” Romney said, adding that when Republicans gather in Tampa in seven months for their national convention “ours will be a united party with a winning ticket.”
But the Florida contest – with its record spending on negative media ads, robo calls and personal attacks in two debates – left Gingrich and his followers so embittered that the former House Speaker renewed his vow last night to take his campaign all the way to the convention this summer and to make sure that Romney is not on the ticket.
With supporters holding aloft signs saying there were still “46 primary states to go,” Gingrich declared, “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and a Massachusetts moderate. . . .We are going to contest every place and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.”
If Gingrich makes good on his threat to stay in until the bitter end, the GOP could be headed for the same nightmare scenario that plagued the Democrats in 1980, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts persisted in challenging President Carter all the way to the national convention. That move left the party hopelessly divided and Carter in a weakened position to take on Republican Ronald Reagan. Carter went down to defeat that year, and it’s not hard to imagine a similar drama unfolding this fall when Obama is likely to regain some of his lost popularity if the economy continues to improve.
“A campaign like this only ends when the candidate wants it to end,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. “Gingrich knows how to live off the land if need be, and I suspect he can put together enough resources to make it through a slim-pickings February to get to the Southern states voting in the first two weeks of March. This is territory he can potentially win.”
At this point, he added, there is absolutely no incentive for Gingrich to withdraw or try to tamp down the bitterness. “This is his last hurrah, so he doesn't have to worry about positioning himself well for the next campaign,” Sabato said. “The GOP establishment has stomped on him mercilessly, so Newt doesn't have to please them. Gingrich has developed a deep distaste for Romney, so Newt isn't overly worried about damaging Mitt for the fall campaign.”
Last night, at least, Romney had plenty to celebrate. In an ugly 10-day primary battle that challenged the veracity, integrity and even sanity of the two candidates, Romney and his well-financed campaign organization and allied Super PAC pummeled and marginalized the former House Speaker.
The major television networks all projected Romney the victor within moments of the last of the polls closing at 8 p.m., and as the actual vote returns began rolling in, it became clear that Romney had drubbed Gingrich with a showing that exceeded his 39-percentage point victory in New Hampshire earlier in the month. The final tally showed Romney leading Gingrich by 14 percentage points, followed by Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, with 13 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 7 percent.
The winner-take-all-contest gave the victor Florida’s 50 national delegates. Romney defeated Gingrich in just about every key area of the sprawling state: from portions of the conservative northern Panhandle bordering on Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, to the Interstate 4 corridor of central Florida; from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Orlando; from the Atlantic coastal area all the way down to the Miami–Dade County metropolitan area, with its large concentrations of seniors and Hispanics.