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.
Romney told reporters earlier in the day that Florida was a good test case of his political strength because it is a “a microcosm of the entire nation,” and if that’s the case, then he demonstrated to Gingrich the breadth of his appeal.
According to CNN exit polling, Romney soundly defeated Gingrich among white voters and Hispanics and even edged him among people identifying themselves with the Tea Party. Married women in particular favored Romney over Gingrich, 51 percent to 28 percent, likely because of the controversy around Gingrich’s three marriages. Gingrich bested Romney among white born-again Christians, but not by much – 39 percent to 36 percent. Only among Republicans who described themselves as very conservative voters did Gingrich do well over Romney – 43 percent to 29 percent.
The bloody Florida campaign is almost certain to be remembered as the week Romney regained his bearings after nearly being blown away by a surging Gingrich coming out of South Carolina primary.
Romney continues to be attacked from the left and the right as a politician lacking a center and a vision of where he wants to lead the country. He's been called a robotic business executive who can offer impressive Power Point presentations on the economy and budget, but one who lacks the common touch and ability to rally the base of his party.
Even so, he overcame an embarrassing loss to Gingrich and demonstrated without doubt that he had the grit to engineer a critical comeback. Romney outspent, outdebated and outmaneuvered Gingrich, in portraying him as a damaged and disgraced former House speaker and a sleazy K Street influence peddler who took $1.6 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac instead of blowing the whistle on its questionable mortgage practices. Gingrich, in turn, blasted Romney as an unprincipled former businessman who destroyed jobs while making huge profits for himself and his investors at Bain Capital, and as a flip-flopping former liberal governor who repeatedly lied about his record.
The campaign now shifts to Nevada and Maine caucuses on Saturday, and then on to Colorado and Minnesota (Feb. 7), Maine (Feb. 24), Arizona (Feb. 29), Michigan (Feb. 30) and Washington State (March 3). Romney, a Mormon, should do well in Nevada, which is home to the second largest concentrations of Mormons after Utah.
Then it’s on to Super Tuesday, March 6, when 10 states will be simultaneously up for grabs, with a total of 437 delegates at stake – or 38 percent of the 1,144 delegates needed to sew up the GOP nomination. Those include five southern and southwestern states – Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Virginia – where Gingrich can expect to find some support (although he’s not on the ballot in Virginia). – Romney should perform well in the other states, including Idaho, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Massachusetts.
“The only thing that Newt has working for him besides his ‘winning personality’ is that he has nine lives,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic activist. “Voters and the media may want to slap Mitt down again if he starts talking again like he’s the inevitable nominee. This may be a problem for Mitt as the GOP political establishment uses his big Florida victory as an excuse to endorse him and to pile on Newt.”
Gingrich will have serious trouble raising enough campaign funds to keep the race competitive. Romney’s campaign and its allied Super PAC crushed Gingrich in spending on mostly negative TV and radio ads in Florida. That lopsided 4 to 1 fundraising and media spending mismatch is certain to continue throughout the campaign.
Gingrich’s campaign announced Tuesday that it raised $10 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 and pulled in an additional $5 million in January. And Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife have pumped a total of $10 million into the Gingrich SuperPAC, Winning our Future, which is hoarding much of those funds to purchase ads in the coming rounds of primaries and caucuses.