After limping into Florida battered and bruised, Mitt Romney won a crushing victory in the state’s primary Tuesday, fending off an escalating series of vitriolic attacks from Newt Gingrich.
With his monster margin in the Sunshine State, Romney did more than demonstrate that he can aggressively take the fight to a tough opponent. He put himself in a commanding position to win the GOP presidential nomination, even as Gingrich vows to stay in the race until the Republicans return to Florida for the Tampa convention.
With three quarters of the vote counted, Romney almost had a majority—47 percent—far eclipsing Gingrich, with 32 percent. Rick Santorum was at 13 percent and Ron Paul had 7 percent. If those margins hold, Romney will have drawn more support than Gingrich and Santorum combined, undercutting Gingrich’s argument that they were dividing a larger bloc of voters than backed Romney.
In his victory speech, Romney looked past Gingrich and trained his rhetorical ammunition on President Obama, mocking the promise of 2008 by saying that hope is “a new job with a paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker.” He bluntly told Obama that “it’s time for you to get out of the way.”
Brimming with confidence, Romney hit his usual marks—repeal Obamacare, alter a foreign policy of “appeasement and apology”—while promising “a new era of American prosperity.” He did, however, mock Obama’s “faculty lounge” mentality, although at last check both have degrees from Harvard—two, in Mitt’s case.
Gingrich, essentially ignoring his thumping, declared the contest a two-man race and chided the “elite media…the same people who said I was dead in June and July,” and again “after Iowa.” Digging in heels, he served notice that “we are going to contest every place.”
Romney may not have vanquished all conservative qualms about his candidacy, but in recovering from his drubbing in South Carolina, Romney has found a winning message that, combined with his money and organization, makes him hard to beat in a 50-state contest. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Gingrich forced the cautious and calculating Romney to become a stronger candidate.
Two of three Florida voters say they back the Tea Party, according to exit polls, and nearly half were evangelicals, so this was a clearly conservative audience. And many did not buy Gingrich’s rhetoric that his opponent was merely a “Massachusetts moderate.” Romney also bested his rival in the NBC and CNN debates, and two thirds of those in the exit polls said debates were the most important or one of the most important factors in their decision.
In the wake of that interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife, Newt also faces a significant gender gap. He barely trailed Romney among married men, 37 to 35 percent, according to the exit polls, but was trounced among married women, 51 to 28 percent.
The former governor finally found his footing in Florida, discovering a way to talk about his wealth and taxes without sounding defensive, and pummeling Gingrich as an erratic and unreliable leader. It didn’t hurt that the former House speaker got sidetracked into talking about building a colony on the moon, or that Romney’s side outspent pro-Gingrich forces 4 to 1 on the airwaves.
Still, by strafing Romney as “pro-abortion,” “pro–gun control,” and “pro–gay rights”—not to mention as a liar—as Gingrich has in recent days, he is marring Romney’s image for the fall campaign. Romney’s unfavorable rating has risen to 49 percent in a Washington Post–ABC News poll.
Gingrich isn’t exactly auditioning to be Romney’s running mate. Gingrich political director Martin Baker argued in a memo saying that “regardless of the message the Romney campaign wants to push and the media wants to deliver, this race is just getting started.”
In mathematical terms, it’s true that Romney’s delegate lead over Gingrich is just 84 to 27. But momentum in early contests creates a bandwagon effect that can depress fundraising and poll numbers for trailing candidates, as Santorum has learned in cratering since his brief success in the Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich can stay in the hunt for several reasons. Although there is a lull in the debate schedule until Feb. 22, these televised face-offs give him a national forum for the price of a plane ticket. At the same time, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has donated $10 million to a pro-Gingrich super PAC that has enabled him to run plenty of anti-Romney ads. That won’t change if Adelson is willing to keep his checkbook open.
Another factor in Gingrich’s favor is the GOP’s shift to proportional representation in many primary contests. Rather than get wiped out in winner-take-all states, Gingrich can steadily accumulate delegates even while losing.
But the media’s treatment will color what remains of his campaign. If fewer reporters are flying on his plane, and those who do pepper him with questions about whether he’s mainly damaging the inevitable nominee, then Gingrich could become more of an irritant than a threat to Romney. But, of course, the press has underestimated him before.
Read More Daily Beast Contributors about the Florida Primary:Michael Tomasky: It’s Over for NewtJohn Avlon: This Race Is Far From OverMichelle Goldberg: Why Liberals Should Love NewtDavid Frum: Gingrich Knows It’s Over& More