By STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Mitt Romney embraced a killer instinct and leveraged a dominant political machine to crush chief rival Newt Gingrich in Florida's Republican presidential primary.
It was a remarkable turnaround for a candidate who lost big just 10 days earlier in South Carolina.
"I stand ready to lead this party and our nation," a jubilant Romney told cheering supporters Tuesday night in Florida, claiming a resounding victory in a state that rejected his White House bid in 2008.
Romney was beaten down as he came into Florida after Gingrich trounced him in South Carolina. The former House speaker's triumph fueled a wave of momentum that threatened to unite anti-Romney conservatives in Florida and beyond.
Recognizing the threat, Romney had hatched a new strategy even before the South Carolina loss was official.
It would be the end of nice-guy Romney, the man who had usually saved his sharpest barbs for President Barack Obama and let his allies run the attack ads. From the start of the Florida campaign, voters here witnessed Romney's new go-for-the-jugular approach on their television sets, debate stages, and even at Gingrich's campaign stops.
"If you're attacked, I'm not going to just sit back," Romney said Tuesday, warning his competitors that the tough guy is here to stay. "I'm going to fight back and fight back hard."
It wasn't just Romney's attack mode — and efforts to undercut Gingrich's character — that guided him to victory.
He also was sitting on a ton of cash and had built an extensive statewide campaign, giving him enormous advantages in a massive state with 10 media markets where campaigns often are won on the air.
Romney and his allies ultimately poured roughly $16 million into Florida television advertising. Restore Our Future, the "super" political action committee supporting Romney, began running Florida ads in mid-December. The candidate and the super PAC also launched an aggressive campaign to court absentee and early voters.
Gingrich was overmatched in Florida on all those fronts. He and his allies turned their attention to the state several weeks after Romney's team had begun its work. He hired local staffers just a month before the election. And he never had the money to compete. Gingrich and his allies spent a quarter of Romney's total — roughly $4 million — on Florida advertising.
Gingrich's fiery demeanor and Ronald Reagan comparisons turned out to be no match for Romney's behemoth organization and newfound aggression.
The former congressman from Georgia arrived in Florida on Jan. 22 with a head of steam after his South Carolina win.
One day later, he was confident as he took the stage for the first of two debates before Florida's primary.
But so was Romney, who had hired a new debate coach that week.
The first sign of Romney's new strategy came early as he tore into his opponent, a former college professor who had built his candidacy on the strength of his debate performances. Among other things, Romney attacked Gingrich's work for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which would soon become a Romney refrain.
"Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1.6 million at the same time Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars," Romney said.
Despite that subpar debate performance, Gingrich initially drew thousands of hopeful Republicans to airport hangars and hotel ballrooms across the state. Fearing crowds might threaten public safety, a fire marshal blocked hundreds from entering a packed venue on the Space Coast last week. And for a time, Gingrich clearly believed he would prove that South Carolina wasn't a fluke.
"I predict people power will beat money power," an almost giddy Gingrich told thousands of cheering supporters in Sarasota last week. "If we win the primary next Tuesday I believe I will become the Republican nominee. So, as the nominee, I get to come back to Tampa in August. We'll have a really big rally for that."
The giddiness didn't last long.
That same day, Romney began running a blistering new ad on Florida television stations across the state. It was a first for a Romney campaign that had been content, up to that point, to leave the negative advertising to outside allies. No more.