Ten days after finishing a distant second to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won a resounding victory in the Florida presidential primary on Tuesday night.
As the dust settled on what had been an often times bitter struggle for the Sunshine State, Romney emerged with 46 percent of the vote compared to the 32 percent for Gingrich. It was a dramatic reversal for both men after polling in Florida had shown Gingrich with a lead there following his South Carolina victory.
Faced with a stinging loss in Florida, Gingrich on Tuesday said that he would prove that “people power” will defeat “money power,” a reference to the sizable cash advantage for the Romney campaign. Gingrich reiterated a pledge to carry his candidacy to the Republican National Convention to be held this summer in Tampa.
“I think Florida did something very important, coming on top of South Carolina,” Gingrich said. “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the true conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.”
For his part, Romney seemed poised to retake the mantle of frontrunner from Gingrich – at least for now. Speaking to supporters in Florida Tuesday night, Romney leveled most of his criticisms at President Barack Obama. He also suggested that a prolonged primary fight would be healthy for the GOP.
“As this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching and they like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak,” Romney said. “But I’ve got news for them. A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us and we will win.”
Florida’s primary was the first of this year’s GOP presidential contests to be open only to registered Republicans and its winner-take-all system awarded Romney with the state’s entire 50 delegates.
As Chris Chillizza noted in the Washington Post, Romney’s solid win in Florida could go far to dispel criticisms by his GOP rivals that he is insufficiently conservative to carry the party’s banner. Exit polling from Tuesday found the turnout to be more conservative than the primary electorate that handed Sen. John McCain a decisive victory there in 2008, with two-out-of-three voters at the polls this year expressing support for the tea party movement.
Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum finished a distant third in Florida, with 13 percent of the vote, followed by Congressman Ron Paul at 7 percent. Both Santorum and Paul were already in Nevada on the night of Florida’s results, trying to lay the groundwork for their campaigns ahead of that state’s Feb. 4 caucuses.
But victory in Nevada could prove an uphill climb for Romney’s rivals, given the fact that he won there in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote.
After Florida’s results, Romney may once again be viewed as the leader of a presidential pack that has dwindled to four Republican contenders. But as shown by a precipitous change of fortunes between South Carolina and Florida, the nomination fight seems far from settled.