By the end, it had become a matter of margins. Would Mitt Romney defeat Newt Gingrich in Florida’s Republican primary? Or would Romney obliterate his opponent, reestablishing himself as the race’s undisputed frontrunner? It didn’t take long to find out. Even before the polls closed, it was clear Romney had reduced Gingrich to a thin, bitter pile of moon dust.
(Video: Beyond Florida)
Romney won the Florida primary on Tuesday, commanding 47% of the vote, a solid victory in the massive, diverse swing state. Gingrich took second with 32%, followed by Rick Santorum at 13% and Ron Paul, who did not campaign there, at 7%. The victory awarded Romney the biggest prize of the primary season to date, 50 winner-take-all delegates to the August nominating convention in Tampa and an unmistakable show of strength in one of the nation’s most important general-election bellwethers.
The former Massachusetts governor exploited early and absentee voting, as well as a massive five-to-one TV-spending advantage to thrash Gingrich across most voting blocs. Exit polls showed Romney collecting 51% of Florida Republican women and seniors to Gingrich’s 29% and 34% respectively. Romney managed to split votes from the conservative panhandle region 38%-38% with his primary foil, and held Gingrich’s lead among Evangelicals to a narrow 3-point margin, a strong showing for Romney in the race’s first closed primary. Only “very conservative” voters, “strong” Tea Party supporters and the most hard-line abortion opponents gave Gingrich substantial margins.
But Gingrich’s concession speech Tuesday was nothing of the sort. “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate,” he said in reference to Romney, whom he did not congratulate. “46 states to go” read the signs that his campaign had passed out to supporters, a message intended for “the media elite” who are writing him off in Newt’s telling. “We’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months,” he continued. “We are going to contest everywhere and we are going to win.” By the end, he was listing day-one priorities in his Administration and pledged “my life, my fortune and my sacred honor” to his supporters.
Gingrich’s promises couldn’t match the exuberance at Romney’s watch party. “He’s gonna turn the West Wing into the right wing,” said Joy Lunt, a 74-year-old who traveled 100 miles for the event. “Florida recognizes Mitt Romney for what he has to offer,” said Teri Pinney, an independent turned Republican. “I can see him and his wife and his five sons as the First Family, and I’d be very proud of that.”
From his victory speech, it was clear that Romney could once again see it too. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow and now it’s time for you to get out of the way,” he said. “I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation.” Back was the Obama-centric stump speech. Back was the confidence. Gingrich and the other rivals? Romney gave them polite congratulations at the beginning of his speech, and little more.