The Confident Front Runner Once More: Primary Day with Mitt Romney

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Tampa, Florida

At the Romney headquarters in Tampa, there are ghosts of the Republican past. On the wall, along with Florida maps and volunteer-made signs, is a collage of swag from the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. It’s a symbol of GOP solidarity, but also a reminder that Barack Obama will be waiting to take on whoever emerges from this year’s messy GOP nomination process. After his decisive win Tuesday night in Florida, Mitt Romney looks like he’ll likely be that candidate.

Romney arrived at his campaign HQ on Tuesday morning to greet his canvassing soldiers and make calls with his phone-bankers; some Florida voters didn’t pick up, but Romney left them messages, encouraging them to support him. “It really is me calling your home,” he said. After making calls, he walked out back to take questions from the press, and much of the back-and-forth was about the muddy nature of the campaign.

(MOREAfter Turbulent January, GOP Race Enters the Doldrums)

Romney outspent Gingrich by more than 5-to-1 on Florida TV, and 92% of the ads run in the state were negative, according to one media study. As the results came in, exit polls showed that voters found Romney most electable. They also thought that his campaign was the most culpable for the negativity; even 20% of Romney’s own voters cited him as the candidate who ran the most “unfair” campaign.

“You really can’t whine about negative campaigning,” Romney said on Tuesday morning, noting that Gingrich fired shots first in South Carolina. (Never mind that Romney outspent him there, too, and buried Gingrich in negative ads in Iowa.) “I’m not gonna stand back and allow another candidate to define me. [Gingrich’s] comments most recently, attacking me, have been really quite sad,” he said, condescendingly.

(MORE: Mitt Romney Wins Florida Primary in a Rout)

Romney also spoke about the importance of Florida, with its big cache of delegates. He repeated the mantra that the Sunshine State, with its communities of Hispanics and retired Baby Boomers and true Southerners, is a microcosm of the United States. “Florida is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally,” he said. “So for me, Florida’s big.” He left the scene abruptly, in what he said was his “good luck” golf shirt, because he had last worn it in New Hampshire.

The Tampa Convention Center, site of his primary party, was abuzz before sundown. Hucksters were flanking the entrance, and the campaign was hawking official Romney merchandise to supporters inside. A platinum “Florida Believes” T-shirt would cost interested parties $30; a red “Believe In America” shirt would cost $20.

Supporters trickled into the ballroom, after snaking through a Disneyland-like line. They came sporting plastic flag-print hats, bright suits, sequined jackets and crowns made from rolls of Romney campaign stickers. The group was confident and ready to celebrate. “He is the best man, the least controversial, and he has the firepower” to win the nomination, said Jill Pedro, a small business owner from Apollo Beach. “He’s got it.”

(MORE: After Florida Loss, Newt Gingrich Finds Himself at a Crossroads)

Fox News played across enormous projection screens in the room. People cheered each time the anchors showed a promising exit poll and went wild each time the broadcast showed Romney HQ. As the network counted down to the close of the polls, the crowd counted along. People chanted “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” as the clock ran out and the race was called for their man. They hollered and hugged each other. A woman jumped up and down with flags in both hands.

By the time Ann Romney took the stage, they were primed. She gave the obligatory thank yous to people who had helped them in Florida–the many members of Congress who endorsed her husband; organizers; and, of course, the voters, who cheered loudly for themselves. After all, they did what they set out to do that day.

Romney arrived to loud fans and his theme song, Kid Rock’s “Born Free.” He started on a gracious note, saying there are fewer candidates than there once were but still three gentlemen who are “serious, able competitors.” He congratulated them on their hard-fought contests, which couldn’t help but sound smug given what a wide margin Romney had just won by.

He tried to account for the blowback that negative campaigning brings. Exit polls showed that 4-in-10 Florida voters weren’t satisfied with the candidates available, compared to 3-in-10 in New Hampshire. Democrats “like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak,” he said. “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.” The crowd agreed.

Like many Floridians, Romney supporter Teri Pinney was ready for the whole race to be over by the time her state’s primary was done. “It’s been a tough race [with] the negativity, the mud that’s being thrown,” she said. “I look forward to when that’s behind us, and we as a group of Republicans consolidate and unify once again.” In his speech, Romney promised that would happen—though when exactly is not yet clear.