By ALAN FRAM and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Women abandoned Newt Gingrich in droves Tuesday and helped fuel former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's triumph in Florida's Republican presidential primary, according to data from an exit poll of voters.
Romney also drew strength from Florida's legion of older voters, Hispanics and two staples among GOP voters in presidential contests so far — those looking for someone to defeat President Barack Obama and people focused on the still flagging economy.
While Romney bested the former House speaker narrowly among men, he strongly outdistanced him among women, winning 52 percent to 28 percent. In the three states in which Republicans had already voted for their presidential nominee — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — there was relatively little difference in how the sexes divided their votes between the two rivals.
Romney's Florida triumph came after a campaign in which he and his supporters outspent Gingrich on television commercials by nearly 5-1, with many of the ads attacking the former speaker's character. None mentioned Gingrich's three marriages or the charges by his second wife, Marianne, that he asked permission for an open marriage before they were divorced, an allegation Gingrich has denied.
Romney prevailed over Gingrich among women across every category of education and income, underscoring the sweep with which they preferred Romney.
Some of the data from Tuesday's exit poll suggested that many women's votes were influenced more by a personal distaste for Gingrich than by liking Romney. Asked their views of Gingrich as a person, men said they generally viewed him favorably by 62 percent to 34 percent, but women were about evenly divided. In contrast, women expressed stronger positive feelings about Romney as a person than men did, but the difference between them was minor.
Among all voters on Tuesday, 55 percent expressed favorable views of Gingrich personally, compared to 77 percent who said the same about Romney.
Men divided about evenly between Gingrich and Romney over which candidate best understood average Americans' problems, but women leaned toward Romney, 38 percent to 26 percent. Men said strongly that they would be satisfied if Gingrich won the nomination, while women said yes by just a slight 51 percent to 46 percent.
About 1 in 7 GOP primary voters Tuesday was Hispanic, and that group preferred Romney, 54 percent to 29 percent. About a third of Tuesday's voters were age 65 or up — reflecting the state's status as a retirement haven — and they gave Romney an edge, 51 percent to 34 percent.
The exit poll also showed that Romney did better with less conservative than more conservative people.
Gingrich prevailed by about a 4-3 margin among those saying they are very conservative and those calling themselves strong supporters of the tea party. Romney had a decisive edge among everyone else.
Around 6 in 10 Florida GOP voters said the economy was their biggest issue, a sentiment expressed by GOP voters in each state so far. They preferred Romney 52 percent to 30 percent. Romney has prevailed among such voters in every state but South Carolina, where Gingrich was victorious on Jan. 21.
Among the nearly half who said they most wanted a candidate who can oust Obama in November's voting, Romney easily topped Gingrich on Tuesday by 58 percent to 33 percent.
Though Romney won among every income category overall, he did better among higher-income voters than those on the lower economic rungs.
Gingrich managed to split with Romney the one quarter of voters who said they are falling behind economically. And Gingrich did better among the half of voters who said home foreclosures are a major problem in their communities than he did among those who said it wasn't so bad.
Early voters also gave Romney more of an edge. Those who voted early or by absentee ballot backed Romney by around a 2-1 majority, a stronger edge than he won among those at the polling places on Tuesday. Before Tuesday's voting, analysts thought Gingrich might pick up some late momentum in Florida because of his victory in South Carolina's Jan. 21 GOP primary.
The survey of 2,835 voters Republican voters was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 2,235 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 40 randomly selected sites in Florida. In addition, 600 who voted early or absentee were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Jan. 23 to 29. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Associated Press global polling director Trevor Tompson and news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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