Romney charges ahead as top contender for Republican nomination after big win in Florida

Mitt Romney looked toward Nevada on Wednesday, heading to the next Republican nominating contest with a fat campaign bankroll and a renewed sense of inevitability as the challenger to President Barack Obama after clobbering Newt Gingrich by 14 percentage points in the Florida primary.

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney looked toward Nevada on Wednesday, heading to the next Republican nominating contest with a fat campaign bankroll and a renewed sense of inevitability as the challenger to President Barack Obama after clobbering Newt Gingrich by 14 percentage points in the Florida primary.

Ten days after Gingrich hammered Romney by a similar margin in South Carolina, one of the most conservative American states, the turbulent Republican nominating contest took another dramatic turn in Florida, which awards all of its party delegates to the top vote-getter and gives Romney momentum as the race heads to western states that are friendlier terrain for the former Massachusetts governor.

Florida also will be a key battleground in the general election later this year as a large and diverse state with a history of backing candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties. Romney and his allies poured roughly $16 million into Florida television advertising for the primary alone.

Romney, who has a massive financial advantage over Gingrich, spoke as though he was the presumptive nominee Tuesday night, declaring himself ready “to lead this party and our nation.”

“Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time to get out of the way,” he said.

Obama’s campaign issued a fundraising appeal Wednesday focused on the millions that Romney and his supporters have poured into negative ads.

“That’s ugly, and it tells us a lot about what to expect from Romney if he wins the Republican nomination,” said campaign manager Jim Messina. “They’re going to try to spend and smear their way to the White House.”

With Obama vulnerable in his bid for a second White House term because of the slow U.S. economic recovery, about half of Florida primary voters said the most important factor for them was a candidate who could defeat the president, according to exit poll results conducted for The Associated Press and television networks.

Not surprisingly, in a state with an unemployment rate hovering around 10 per cent, about two-thirds of voters said the economy was their top issue. Florida was one of the hardest hit states in the collapse of the U.S. housing market that caused a meltdown of the American financial sector in the final months of the George W. Bush presidency.

Romney, who had failed to draw much above a quarter of the vote in three previous primary and caucus contests in smaller states, won almost half the votes in Florida’s four-person race. That damages Gingrich’s contention that Romney is failing to attract a plurality of voters.

Returns from 100 per cent of Florida’s precincts showed Romney with 46 per cent of the vote to 32 per cent for Gingrich. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had 13 per cent, and Texas congressman Ron Paul 7 per cent.

Florida’s winner-take-all primary was worth 50 delegates to the Republican National Convention in late August in Tampa, Florida. That gave Romney a total of 87, to 26 for Gingrich, 14 for Santorum and four for Paul, with 1,144 required to clinch the nomination.

Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, said most states have yet to vote. The sign on his podium read “46 States to go.”

The candidates were converging Wednesday on Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Saturday. Romney won Nevada’s caucuses after losing in Florida in 2008, and a substantial Mormon population there could propel him to victory again this time. Romney dropped out of the presidential race four years ago when Sen. John McCain became the clear favourite among Republicans. His focus on the economy could play well this time in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the U.S.

But in talking to CNN on Wednesday morning, Romney again made a comment that could make voters wonder whether the millionaire candidate is in touch with average Americans.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 per cent of Americans who are struggling.”

Romney took another run at the issue later Wednesday as reporters questioned whether he cared about the poor. Romney said he’d been saying throughout the campaign that his prime focus is on middle-income people.

He said that “if there are people that are falling through the cracks, I want to fix that.”

The nomination battle so far this year has been defined by an unusually long series of 18 debates, typicallya strong point for Gingrich. But he faltered in Florida as Romney hired a new debate coach and went on the attack. And no debates are planned for three weeks, hurting candidates with little funding who relied on the free national exposure. The candidates debate next in Arizona on Feb. 22.

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