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Romney Wins Big, Newt Loses Mean, Race Continues (But Not For Long)

In the end, the Florida Primary wasn’t even close. Living up to the expectations of the late polling, Mitt Romney beat Newt Gingrich by 14 points and, contrary to Gingrich’s prediction, ended up with more voters than Gingrich and Santorum combined:

TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney rolled to victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from Newt Gingrich and reclaiming his dominant position as he urged Republicans to rally behind his quest to capture the party’s presidential nomination.

The triumph by Mr. Romney offered a forceful response to the concerns that were raised about his candidacy only 10 days ago after a stinging loss to Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. It stripped Mr. Gingrich of his momentum and raised questions about his effort to persuade Republicans of his viability.

“A competitive primary does not divide us,” Mr. Romney told his cheering supporters. “It prepares us. And we will win.”

He urged Republicans to focus on defeating President Obama, declaring, “I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation.”

The outcome of the Florida primary promised to reorder the field of Republican candidates. As Mr. Gingrich pledged to fight on, saying that he would resist attempts to drive him from the race, he faced a newly aggressive challenge from Rick Santorum, who finished a distant third here.

The growing strength of Mr. Romney was clear across nearly all segments of the Republican electorate. No state where Republicans have competed this year is more reflective of the nation’s geographical, political and ethnic diversity than Florida, and its complexity seemed to help Mr. Romney to turn back the grass-roots coalition that Mr. Gingrich had been counting on.

Mr. Romney defeated Mr. Gingrich by a margin of 14 percentage points, a telling gap that the Romney campaign hoped would be resounding enough to undermine Mr. Gingrich’s ability to be seen as a credible threat. Yet Mr. Gingrich did not see it that way. He spoke to a crowd in Orlando holding signs reading “46 States to Go,” saying he had a message for those wondering about the future of his presidential bid.

“We are going to contest every place, and we will win,” said Mr. Gingrich, who did not congratulate Mr. Romney for his victory, nor did he call him.

Sensing a new opening in the race, Mr. Santorum said Tuesday night that he intended to emerge as the true conservative alternative over Mr. Gingrich. He is running new commercials in Nevada and Colorado comparing Mr. Gingrich to Mr. Obama.

“In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity,” Mr. Santorum told supporters in Las Vegas. He said, “I’m going to be the conservative alternative, I’m going to be the anti-Mitt,’ and it didn’t work.”

The victory by Mr. Romney, delivered by a diverse coalition of the Republican electorate, allowed him to return to the hard job of pulling together a divided party and resume his argument that he has the best chance at beating Mr. Obama.

“My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity,” Mr. Romney said, sounding very much like a general election candidate. As a crowd cheered his name here in the city where Republicans will gather to crown their nominee, he added: “When we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.”

The victory was the first for Mr. Romney that came without an asterisk.

His narrow advantage on the night of the Iowa caucuses was overturned two weeks later in the certified results. His New Hampshire win was discounted by his Republican rivals because he was seen as a favorite son from a neighboring state.

But his strong finish in Florida, which drew more voters than the first three contests combined, represented an extraordinary turnaround for his prospects to win the nomination. The outcome of the race, his advisers argued, should ease the qualms among some Republicans that he is not sufficiently conservative.

And Romney’s speech last night was a recognition of that fact. There was barely any mention of any of his Republican opponents. Instead, Romney focused almost entirely on the President he’ll be facing in the General Election. This was obviously a deliberate strategy on his part to reinforce the idea of his inevitability. What was odd, though, was that Newt Gingrich did exactly the same thing. Not only was Gingrich alone among the other three candidates in neither calling Romney nor congratulating him in his speech, but he sounded last night like he was accepting his parties nomination:

The speech was vintage Gingrich, comparing his predicament to Lincoln at Gettysburg and vowing to conduct a “people’s campaign.” He made one small run at Romney, calling him “the Massachusetts moderate,” and then wandered into a rather trite recitation of his commitment to change. He rambled a bit, getting nostalgic about his Contract with America and assuring us he’d been studying “how to do this” since 1958. (He was running for president as a child?) He is going to get rid of White House czars, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and halt the war on religion. If there was a theme in there, it was hard to spot.

He obnoxiously ended by pledging: “My life, my fortune, my sacred honor.” But he’s not doing any of that. And it’s quite an insult to American patriots who have said that and meant it.

Gingrich has been reduced to a smaller-than-life figure. He’s a guy with a lot of words and very little appeal, whose meanness got the best of him and helped to wreck his campaign on a heap of attacks, insults and downright vile accusations (the latest being his claim that Romney is hostile to religion).

In other words, it was vintage Gingrich; the arrogance, the grandiose ideas, the discussion of what he’d do in the first hours after he became President. If nothing else it would make a great plot for one of those dime-store alternative history novels Gingrich likes to write. The thing is that Gingrich apparently thinks its the beginning of yet another rebirth for his Presidential campaign. As Gingrich spoke last night, his supporters were holding signs that said “46 states to go,” a reference to the remaining primaries and caucuses and Gingrich’s promise to stay in the race until the convention. Of course, Gingrich hasn’t qualified for the ballot in two of those states, and his campaign said earlier this week that it doesn’t intend to invest serious resources in either Nevada or Michigan, so it’s hard to tell how serious he really is going forward.

Ross Douthat is one who thinks that things are essentially over for Gingrich no matter what he says but Gingrich’s people say they’re holding out for Super Tuesday:

ORLANDO, Fla. — Newt Gingrich has been predicting that the battle for the Republican presidential nomination will last “until June or July, unless Romney drops out sooner,” but the magnitude of his loss to Mitt Romney in Florida’s primary on Tuesday could force him to recalibrate.

It is possible, of course, that the contest will stretch on for several months, largely because the voting so far has allocated only 5 percent of the delegates needed to claim the nomination. On Wednesday, the battle turns to states like Nevada that award their delegates on a proportional basis, so even coming in second will have a payoff, unlike in Florida, where the winner takes all.

But Mr. Gingrich’s loss in Florida was a profound rejection of his candidacy by voters in one of the biggest, most important swing states, and pressure could mount on Mr. Gingrich to drop his insurgency bid.

Still, he said he would not back down. Framed by signs that read “46 states to go,” Mr. Gingrich told supporters at a convention center ballroom here on Tuesday night: “We are going to contest every place, and we will win.”

He did not even offer congratulations to Mr. Romney. Instead, because he won the support of conservatives, according to exit polls, Mr. Gingrich said the results showed a two-man race.

The Gingrich campaign is banking on its ability to accumulate delegates, even if in a drip, drip, drip fashion, and to demonstrate enough strength until voting takes place in a succession of Southern states starting on Super Tuesday, March 6. The South is where Mr. Gingrich’s perceived strength lies, with his big victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21 as Exhibit A.

If he can hold on until Super Tuesday, his campaign believes, Mr. Gingrich could get a jolt of energy from Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, with its 76 delegates. After that, his campaign says, he is well positioned for Texas, which will vote on April 3 and offers 155 delegates. Both states award their delegates proportionally.

“The campaign is shifting to a new phase where opportunities are not limited to a single state,” Martin Baker, Mr. Gingrich’s national political director, wrote in a statement.

“The proportional nature of the upcoming contests essentially guarantees that no candidate will secure the nomination any time soon,” he added.

But this is among the rosiest of scenarios for the roller-coaster Gingrich campaign as it confronts the challenges of multiple contests with little money, the desire of many Republicans to unite around Mr. Romney and, perhaps most of all, Mr. Gingrich’s vulnerabilities as a candidate who has lived by debates and, in Florida, died by debates.

And there lies the crux of Gingrich’s problem. There aren’t going to be as many debates going forward as there have been — there’s only one in the entire month of February, for example — and Mitt Romney proved in Florida that he’s just as formidable a debater as Gingrich’s supporters think their guy is, and more important that Newt isn’t nearly as great a debater as his press clippings claim. There’s some good news, one supposes, in the fact that Gingrich did well in the counties in northern Florida that are considered more culturally Southern than the rest of the state. This potentially bodes well for Gingrich’s chances in states like Georgia (which votes on Super Tuesday) as well as Alabama and Mississippi (which vote March 13th). Gingrich could also be competitive in states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. He’s got no real chance of pulling ahead of Romney in the delegate count, but it’s at least mathematically possible that he could still be in the hunt at the end of March and the race would be unresolved until some time in late April or May.

The problem with this scenario for Gingrich is that there are two flies in the ointment that make it unlikely he’d be able to mount the kind of campaign that would be able to pull it off.

First, if Florida proved anything itproved that there’s only one candidate in this race with a real campaign organization, and his name is Mitt Romney. Romney was on the ground in Florida long before any of the other candidates, and was thus able to dominate the absentee and early voting process. He was on the air with ads in Florida before any of the other candidates, and was thus able to control the message. You can bet they are repeating that strategy in states that don’t even have primaries for six weeks or more. The reason the other campaigns weren’t able to compete in Florida wasn’t just a question of competence, although that certainly was a part of it, but because they simply didn’t have the resources to compete. That was just one state. Now that we’re moving into the phase of the campaign where candidates will have to worry about more than one state at a time it’s hard to see how Gingrich will be able to compete effectively, especially since the lack of frequent debates means much less free media coverage.

Second, Gingrich’s entire campaign seems dependent on the assistance of the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC which is in turn funded almost entirely by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. What happens to Gingrich if Adelson suddenly decides to stop stroking those $5,000,000 checks he apparently wrote in January? Gingrich apparently raised $10 million in the last quarter and $5 million in January of this year, which is nothing to sneeze at, but Romney raised $24 million in the 4th Quarter and ended 2011 with $19 million cash-on-hand. At the same time, the Pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future had $23.6 million in the bank at the start of 2012. If Adelson pulls the rug out from under Gingrich, which he will do at some point one must think, then it’s over for Newt regardless of how many states are left to go.

The final hurdle for Newt Gingrich is Rick Santorum. Although it was pretty clear from the Florida polling that a Santorum withdrawal would benefit Romney more than Gingrich, the longer there is a conservative alternative to Gingrich in the race the less likely it is that Gingrich will be able to do much better than he did last night. In fact, Santorum seems to be making it his mission right now to campaign against Gingrich rather than Romney, but that ends up helping Romney in the end. The longer Santorum stays in the race, the less likely it will be that Gingrich can claim to be the candidate conservatives should unite behind. And that will only become more difficult when you start seeing conservatives line up behind Romney, which is likely to start happening soon.

Gingrich’s scenario is possible on some level, I suppose, but it isn’t very plausible. However long it takes, and it may not take very long at all, he will find himself pushed aside as Romney rolls on and the GOP prepares for November. At the very least, one can imagine that Gingrich did not help himself with the ungracious speech he gave last night.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Fiona says:

    He obnoxiously ended by pledging: “My life, my fortune, my sacred honor.”

    Obnoxious is right. The man has no honor, avoided military service, and is not likely putting up any of his own money on this quixotic campaign.

    Newt’s blend of resentment and pseudo-populism may well enable him to win in a couple of deep south states. I have no doubt he’ll keep going as long as he has sufficient funds. He’s clearly on a personal mission to take down Romney, a mission that underscores his unfitness to be president. Temperamental dude with a vendetta–not exactly the kind of person you want as leader of the free world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. Hey Norm says:

    “…And Romney’s speech last night was a recognition of that fact…”

    Well if that is true…it was the only factual thing about it.
    Romney is completely untethered from truth.
    Accusing someone of saying or doing anything to become President is commmon.
    Romney somehow manages to embody and animate this tired cliche.
    Appeasement…President Obama believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. Tell that to OBL, or the Somolian Pirates, or Qhaddafi, or Iran, which is currently suffering under tough sanctions.
    Obama has presided over more job losses than any other President. Just factually incorrect.
    Obama is growing Government. How come there are fewer and fewer public sector jobs every month? Why do we hear that the GDP is being held back by reduced Government spending?
    Obama forced through the PPACA. Forced a super-majority??? Seriously?
    Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy. Pure unadulterated BS.
    Romney, evidently, is running against an imaginary President….because the President he describes does not exist. These are not opinions reasonable people can disagree about…these are claims of fact that are demonstrably untrue.
    The only question is whether the stenographers in the pundit class will call him on it or allow it to continue in their mindless quest for “balance”.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  3. James says:

    At the very least, one can imagine that Gingrich did not help himself with the ungracious speech he gave last night.

    Gingrich appeals to the base of the GOP that adores that kind of vitrol. Why do you think he get so much milage out of “food stamp president”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  4. sam says:

    He obnoxiously ended by pledging: “My life, my fortune, my sacred honor.”

    But not his sons — not one of the five has ever been in uniform. You’d think…Why do I think of the scene in The Godfather when Michael tells the family he’s enlisted and Sonny goes ballistic?

    A woman at an Ask Mitt Anything forum earlier today in Iowa raised the question again, asking whether any of Mr. Romney’s five sons are serving in the military, adding pointedly, “If none of them are, how do they plan to support this war on terrorism by enlisting in our U.S. military?”

    Although his campaign said his remarks were taken out of context, Mr. Romney’s response is drawing criticism, because he said, in part, “one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected.” [Source]

    I’m sure Pvt. Snuffy in Afghanistan finds that comforting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. PJ says:

    Instead, Romney focused almost entirely on the President he’ll be facing in the General Election.

    Romney is gearing up for the general election in more than one way. Running 99.6% negative ads the last week in Florida is a training run for a general election campaign focusing on nothing but negativity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @sam: The quote you’ve based your comment on was Newt’s, not Romney’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. reid says:

    @Hey Norm: The ease with which he lies and shifts positions is why I can’t stand him. (He’s not unique in that regard, sadly.) I wonder how he reconciles that sort of behavior with his faith. The few Mormons I know are such upstanding, honest people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. I think you’re treating Gingrich as if he place 3rd.

    As distressing as it is to note that he was a strong second, he was. And of course the strong second in a primary is not the guy to drop out.

    It’s also a little ironic for third place guy to pile on in criticism of the guy who pulled twice as many votes as he.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Barb Hartwell says:

    I really can not see the Republicans winning in November, they have shown just how bad they are to the world. They should concede now and wait for 2016 and see who they would be running against. Hopefully for them they will find some decent humans that we all can at least respect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Gerry W. says:

    Did anyone hear Romney say that we are going to have the biggest military ever? Well, so much for cutting spending. lol

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    Is this the third time the obsequies have said over the body of Newt Gingrich? Florida is a large state where advertising and organisation are important and Romney just spent 15 million over the last ten days blanketing the state with ads calling Gingrich a scumbag and he had the unofficial Republican machine behind him. Will these conditions apply in all the contests up to and including super Tuesday? My assumption is Newt will probably stay in the race at least until then unless someone pays Danegeld. And he can do this quite easily. The media want to fill their space and so will continue to give Newt all the attention he desires. There’s also evidence from the Florida result where he did very well in the most conservative part of the state that he could continue to do well in some upcoming contests in conservative southern and rural environments. So yes Romney remains the once and future king but the regicide is unlikely to depart the scene for the moment so perhaps Doug needs to put his euphoria on hold for a little while longer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. sam says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    @sam: The quote you’ve based your comment on was Newt’s, not Romney’s.

    You follow the link? Newt doesn’t have any sons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. sam says:

    Ah, sorry Gromitt, my bad…you’re right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Fiona says:

    @Gerry W.:

    Did anyone hear Romney say that we are going to have the biggest military ever?

    Yes. So, under a Romney administration we’re going to increase military spending, cut taxes, ensure that Medicare remains the same as it ever was, and no indication of how he’s going to pay for it all except through some kind of exceptional and spectacular economic growth. Color me skeptical.

    Perhaps he’ll do the same thing he did at Bain–strip the country of all its major assets, pink slip half the federal work force, and then borrow a ton of money. Then, once he’s gone and he and his buddies have collected the profit, the country declares bankruptcy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  15. Jib says:

    @Hey Norm: And it is going to kill him in the fall. Romney lies are fine inside the FNC propaganda bubble because it is what repubs believe. But once he starts campaigning towards the center, he will drop that, hoping no one will notice. Well, the repubs who dont like him WILL notice. They are going to scream that he is abandoning the right and becoming a moderate.

    Romney with his weakness with the base, overseas tax accounts, medicare fraud, etc, is one of the weakest candidates nominated by a either party in decades. The bad economy and the rabid Obama hatred inside the repubs hide that weakness but dont think it will save him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. sam says:

    My distaste for Mitt is clouding my reading.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. PD Shaw says:

    Gingrich did well in the counties in northern Florida that are considered more culturally Southern than the rest of the state

    CNN was reporting last night that Gingrich and Romney essentially tied in northern Florida. I think it depends how you slice it.

    Gingrich won the rural, fairly unpopulated areas of northern Florida, plus Pensecola.
    Romney won the metro areas of northern Florida (Tallahassee, Panama City, Fort Walton), except Pensecola.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. PD Shaw says:

    Pensecola of course is the Naval Air Base, so McCain’s endorsement didn’t do much good. But the pattern apears to be that Gingrich can do well in the rural deep south and military centers, whereas Romney can perform well in coastal and urban areas like Charleston.

    Gingrich is revealed to be a regional candidate for the Deep South by these first four contests. Romney had a statistical tie in the Midwest and a wins in the Northeast and presumably soon in the West, or at least Gingrich isn’t seriously contesting Nevada.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. sam says:

    @PD Shaw:

    CNN was reporting last night that Gingrich and Romney essentially tied in northern Florida. I think it depends how you slice it.

    I cired this interactive map at TPM in another thread. According to it, Newt took the bulk of the northern Florida precincts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: I’ll take a look at it. I’ve been playing with this NY Times map which is county by county. Gingrich wins rural counties, sometimes with as few as 74 votes. The most populated county Gingrich took (with Pensecola in it), he won with approx. 1,500 votes more than Romney. Meanwhile Romney had leads measured in tens of thousands elsewhere in the state.

    The overall effect appears similar to those maps Republicans like to show of an overwhelming “Red” America, when geographic space is emphisized over numbers of voters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. James says:

    @PD Shaw: Thanks to be kind enough to give us some actual analysis on the numbers. It’s amazing how quicky agenda and narrative fall apart once you look at some data.

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