One of Mitt Romney’s biggest achievements in winning the Florida Republican presidential primary Tuesday came as a surprise: He captured more votes than his two main competitors combined. This gives him bragging rights that he is finally consolidating conservative support and can rally the GOP base over the long run.
Romney took 46.4 percent of the vote in Florida, compared with 31.9 for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 13.4 for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The combined total for Gingrich and Santorum was a percentage point below Romney’s near-majority.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished fourth in Florida with 7 percent. His libertarian message is considered outside the conservative mainstream, especially his opposition to many U.S. military commitments abroad, including the war in Afghanistan.
Gingrich and Santorum have been actively competing to be the alternative to Romney, but the former Massachusetts governor demonstrated in Florida that he can defeat both of them together. Romney even came close to winning self-described evangelical voters, a group where he had been considered weak. Gingrich had 39 percent of such voters to Romney’s 36 percent.
One area where Romney still lags is among voters who consider themselves “very conservative.” Gingrich won 43 percent of that group to Romney’s 29.
Despite his defeat, Gingrich said he will still push to be the main alternative to Romney. He told supporters in Florida that the race is boiling down to a choice between him as the “conservative leader” and Romney as the “Massachusetts moderate.”
For his part, Santorum is trying to elbow Gingrich aside and consolidate conservative support for himself, even though his performance in the last few GOP contests has been disappointing. The former Pennsylvania Republican told CNN Tuesday that national conservative leaders are recognizing that Gingrich cannot “stay on message” and regularly gets distracted by side issues such as “moon colonies” and attacking Romney over his personal finances. The superior course, Santorum said, is to discuss the concerns of most voters, such as unemployment.