TAMPA — Mitt Romney scored an impressive victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary, winning by such a decisive margin that the networks called the race as soon as the polls closed. And his choice of this city as the site of his celebration was not accidental.
‘When we gather back here seven months from now here in Tampa for our convention, we will be a united party with a winning ticket for America,” the former Massachusetts governor said in his victory speech at the Convention Center downtown. Saying that Democrats believed the tough fight for the GOP nomination would leave Republicans “divided and weak,” Romney said, “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us.”
Romney’s appeals to party unity surely rang hollow to supporters of Newt Gingrich, who was on the receiving end of a weeklong barrage of attack ads from Romney’s campaign and the Florida winner’s so-called “super PAC,” Restore Our Future. Between the two entities, Team Romney spent something like $17 million on TV and radio ads in Florida, compared to about $5 million spent by Gingrich and the pro-Gingrich “super PAC,” Winning Our Future. The vast majority of the ads by both camps were of the attack variety, and media analyst Ken Goldstein pronounced it “the most negative campaign ever.”
If Romney proved nothing else in Florida, he proved what a 3-to-1 ratio in campaign spending can accomplish in a Republican primary. Gingrich came into the Sunshine State10 days ago fresh from a triumphant victory in South Carolina, leading Romney in Florida by nine points according to a Rasmussen poll. When the votes were counted Tuesday night, however, Romney won Florida by 14 points and, in terms of delegates to the GOP convention, the result was even more lopsided than that: 50 to zero in the winner-take-all primary. And in his victory speech here in Tampa, Romney sounded very confident that he will return to accept the nomination in August, ignoring his Republican rival and focusing his attacks on the incumbent Democrat as if the general election campaign had already begun. “My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity,” Romney told his cheering supporters, promising to “build an America where hope is a new job with a paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker.”
Eighty miles away in Orlando, Gingrich drew applause from his supporters by describing the various executive orders he would enact on the day of his inauguration as president. While supporters behind him held signs saying “46 States to Go,” Gingrich addressed himself to “the elite media,” promising he would “contest every place and we’re going to win and we’ll be in Tampa as the nominee.”
In Tampa, however, Gingrich’s boasting was greeted with derision by Eric Ferhnstrom, a top advisor to Romney. “He’s not even on the ballot in 46 states,” said Ferhnstrom, noting that Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in next Tuesday’s primary in Missouri, which will thus be essentially a two-man contest between Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Ferhnstrom said he expects that Romney’s most formidable opponent in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses will not be Gingrich, but former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. And neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified for the GOP primary ballot in Virginia, which votes on “Super Tuesday” March 6, which will thus also pit Romney in a head-to-head match against Paul.
Gingrich didn’t bother explaining any of that to his supporters in Orlando. “It’s now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader and the Massachusetts moderate, ” he said, obviously attempting to discount Santorum’s claim to be the “consistent conservative” in the 2012 Republican field. Santorum left Florida early, returning home to get a copy of his income taxes demanded by the media, and also to attend to an illness of his 3-year-old daughter, Bella. Santorum spent Tuesday night with supporters in Las Vegas, where he told CNN that the expensive Florida contest was “a death match that I didn’t want to get involved in.” Santorum said Gingrich’s lopsided loss might inspire Republican voters “to look at this race now and say if you don’t want Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich doesn’t have what it takes to win this, let’s give someone else a shot.” Santorum said in a Tuesday interview on CNN that his campaign raised more than $4 million in January, boosted by his victory in the Iowa caucuses, and was now raising money at the pace of $200,000 a day.
Romney’s rivals will have to continue their campaigns now without benefit of the free national exposure provided by televised debates. There were six debates in January — two each in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — but three weeks will elapse before the next TV debate, Feb. 22 in Arizona. Furthermore, a glance at the campaign calendar shows a three-week gap between next Tuesday’s contests — the non-binding primary vote in Missouri, plus caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota — and the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan. This hole in the GOP calendar is the result of Florida’s decision to leapfrog its primary from March to January, a decision that scrambled the entire campaign schedule. (See, “Why Does Florida Hate America?” Sept. 30.) As originally approved by the Republican National Committee, the schedule would have begun Feb. 7 with the Iowa caucuses, with Florida voting on the first Tuesday in March. Instead, by the time January was over, four states had already voted and as February arrived at midnight, Romney was riding high as the winner of the biggest prize so far.
There were many conservatives who suspected that Florida’s decision to switch its primary to January was a move orchestrated by the GOP establishment, intended to achieve exactly this result. But there was no talk of sinister conspiracies late last night on the patio of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Tampa, where a young Romney campaign staffer sat relaxing in the warm night air and remarked that his flight was scheduled to depart at 8:30 Wednesday morning. “On to Vegas, baby,” said the Romney staffer. And he was smiling like a winner.