Mitt Romney roared to a smashing victory in the Florida Republican presidential primary Tuesday night, placing him back in the driver's seat in the race for the GOP nomination.
The Florida contest had turned into a bruising slugfest between Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, his main GOP rival. It was the most negative and personal campaign of any state yet. But in the end, Mitt Romney's superior organization, his huge campaign treasury, his strong debate performances in Florida last week, and his relentless attacks in a tidal wave of TV ads were too much for Gingrich.
Romney and his allied political action committee spent an estimated $17 million on more than 12,000 TV ads in Florida compared with about $3 million and 200 ads for Gingrich and his allied PAC, according to Fox News and other sources. At his victory rally Tuesday night, Romney turned away from his GOP competitors and focused on attacking President Obama. He said Obama has presided over grave economic problems which he has failed to correct, such as 35 months of unemployment exceeding 8 percent, a huge number of home foreclosures, and massive growth of government and federal debt. He called for the "end of the Obama era" and the start of "a new era of American prosperity." He also said Obama's foreign policy is based on "appeasement and apology." Romney declared that the November election would be "about saving the soul of America."
Gingrich was defiant in defeat. "It is now clear," he declared, "that it will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate." He said there are 46 states to go in the nominating process and, "We are going to contest everyplace and we are going to win." Gingrich said it will be a duel between "people power" versus "money power," and pledged to intensify his campaign against the Washington establishment and the nation's elites, including the national media.
The television networks including CNN and Fox News projected Romney's victory within minutes of the closing of the polls. Romney seemed likely to win half the vote while Gingrich had about one-third, according to projections by the networks and exit polls. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was far behind in third place, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was in fourth place.
The exit polls showed that Romney, a former venture capitalist, won almost across the board. He captured 50 per cent of seniors to Gingrich's 35 percent. He won among wealthier and better educated voters, and did particularly well among women. Gingrich did well among the most conservative voters but Romney held his own with this group.
Romney also won among the majority of voters who said the economy was the top issue. Within that group, Romney took 51 percent to Gingrich's 31 percent. "I voted for Romney," said David Branson of Wildermere, a suburb of Orlando. "I'm in business. He's in business. He's a man with experience in making decisions, tough decisions, working with other parties and other people that have conflicting points of view. He'd had to do it before and he'll do it again."
Romney captured all 50 delegates that were at stake in the winner-take-all contest.
The campaign now shifts to a series of states that hold caucuses to choose nominating delegates, including Maine and Nevada on Saturday, and Colorado and Minnesota on February 7. Missouri will hold a non-binding presidential preference primary on the same day.
The duel between Romney and Gingrich was particularly vicious and personal in the final days, with each man saying the other was making false charges and running a dishonest campaign. Romney told a rally in Naples Sunday that Gingrich was "making excuses" for his imminent defeat but had no one to blame but himself. "It's time to look in the mirror," Romney said, adding that Gingrich's problem with Florida voters was because he worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddic Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people, and that you're selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth."