WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney coasted to a decisive victory in the battleground state of Florida on Tuesday, regaining the upper hand in his efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination after dropping millions of dollars to all but annihilate his biggest foe, Newt Gingrich.
Romney’s campaign is renewed and reinvigorated with his victory in Florida just a few days before the “first in the west” Nevada caucuses this weekend, a contest their candidate won resoundingly in 2008 during his first run for president.
Unofficial results had Romney winning 47 per cent of the vote compared to 32 per cent for Gingrich, 13 per cent for Rick Santorum and seven per cent for Ron Paul.
“Primary contests are not easy and they’re not supposed to be,” Romney said during a speech in Tampa that went on to target U.S. President Barack Obama, not his Republican rival.
“A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us . . . . Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way.”
Romney heads to Nevada, a state with a sizable Mormon population, on yet another wave of momentum in a historical rollercoaster ride of a race for the nomination. It’s the first time in Republican party history that three different candidates won the first three contests of the race — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Now Romney has two triumphs under his belt — Florida and New Hampshire — following his humiliating defeat 10 days ago in South Carolina, where socially conservative primary voters gave a fiery Gingrich a double-digit win over the front-runner.
Gingrich has been on the warpath against Romney since the first contest of the Republican presidential race, the Iowa caucuses a month ago.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives blamed his falling fortunes in Iowa on negative advertising launched by the Romney campaign — but his blitz was akin to a bow and arrow compared to the $15-million attack that Romney unleashed in Florida.
And yet it wasn’t just the massive Romney cash infusion that turned the tables on Gingrich. Florida exit polls suggested the state’s two televised debates last week played a big role in helping voters make up their minds.
Romney had the two best debate performances of his campaign in Florida, hitting a startled Gingrich hard on myriad issues while deftly fending off attacks against his own background as a venture capitalist and the details in his newly released tax returns.
Female voters, too, caused the thrice-married Gingrich big-time troubles in Florida. Exit polling suggested the majority of female voters, particularly married women, dislike Gingrich and cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Romney.
The fight in Florida was a bare-knuckled one, and continued right up until the 11th hour. A Gingrich robo-call being made as voters went to the polls in Florida essentially accused the front-runner of once forcing Holocaust survivors to eat non-kosher food.
Indeed, negative ads were so plentiful in Florida over the past week that they accounted for 92 per cent of all campaign commercials that ran, according to the Kantar Media Campaign Analysis Group.
Sixty-eight per cent of those ads were attacks on Gingrich.
Gingrich, whose campaign has been declared dead several times since he entered the race last spring, has vowed to battle on until the bitter end. The delegate-rich state of Georgia, indeed, could be fertile ground for Gingrich, who served the state for years as a congressman.
The Georgia primary is being held on what’s known as Super Tuesday on March 6. That’s when several states hold primaries or caucuses.
“This is a long, long way from being over,” Gingrich said earlier Tuesday in Orlando as he suggested Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who finished a distant third in the primary, should drop out of the race.
“The question is whether or not we can consolidate (behind) one conservative …. Every poll shows me getting twice the vote that (Santorum) is getting,” he said.
Romney was unapologetic about his advertising juggernaut in Florida.
“I’ll tell you, if you attack me, I’m not going to just sit back, I’m going to fight back and I’m going to fight back hard,” Romney said Tuesday in Tampa.
“His comments most recently attacking me have been really quite sad and, I think, painfully revealing about the speaker and what he’s willing to say and do to try and take the nomination. I just can’t stand back and let him say those things about me without responding.”
While the Romney campaign is confident about its chances in Nevada, Paul, the libertarian congressman, also has a solid organizational team in the state, as well as passionately loyal supporters. Paul finished second there in 2008 during his presidential run.
Tea Party sentiment is also strong in Nevada, something that could help Gingrich.