Tampa, Florida –rolled to victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from 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.
His support in urban areas with concentrations of affluent and older Republicans was enough to overcome strong Tea Party supporters, white evangelicals and self-described “very conservative” voters who coalesced around Mr. Gingrich in South Carolina..
It was the first contest of the year where only registered Republicans could participate, with independents and crossover Democrats restricted from casting ballots in the primary. He built a broad coalition of Republicans who found him to be the strongest candidate to take on President Obama, with exit polls showing that nearly half of the primary voters say the most important quality was someone who could defeat the president.
The outcome raised questions about Mr. Gingrich’s strength to proceed. If there was one part of Florida with a countermessage, it was in the Panhandle, which more clearly mirrors the rest of the nation’s South. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney won equal support there, according to surveys of voters — giving hope to Mr. Gingrich for the a series of Southern contests on Super Tuesday, March 6, and pause to Mr. Romney, who struggled for traction in South Carolina.
After a week of intensive attack from Mr. Romney and the forces supporting him, the enthusiasm that swept Mr. Gingrich into Florida largely collapsed. Surveys of voters found that he had nearly the same percentage of strong Tea Party supporters and very conservative voters that he had in South Carolina, more than 4 in 10 — but, in a state like Florida, it was not enough to even put him close to Mr. Romney.
Representative Ron Paul of Texas finished fourth on Tuesday, his second disappointing finish in a row. But the race was moving to friendlier ground in Nevada, and he told a boisterous crowd there on Tuesday night, “We’ve only gotten started,” adding, “now the counting really occurs.”
But the fight for Florida was largely between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich. And Mr. Romney overwhelmed and eviscerated Mr. Gingrich. Negative ads accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that aired during the final week of the race, according to an analysis.
Yet despite nearly a combined $20 million invested in television and radio advertising — Mr. Romney and his allies spent at least $15.4 million, compared with about $3.7 million by Mr. Gingrich and his boosters — only 4 in 10 primary voters said that campaign advertising was an important factor in their decision, according to surveys of voters.
Mr. Gingrich pledged to a small crowd of supporters on Tuesday night that he would counter a heavy negative advertising campaign with “ideas,” as he said he has done in the past.
“We are going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months,” Mr. Gingrich said, vowing to return to Tampa with the delegates he has already won.
The Florida primary was winner-take-all, so the victory gave Mr. Romney 50 delegates. Yet he remains only a small fraction of the way towards accumulating the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination.
Advisers to Mr. Romney have made it clear that they take seriously Mr. Gingrich’s promise to stay in the race until the August nominating convention, given the persistence he has shown and his defiant speech Tuesday night. There, the former speaker described the contest as “a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate.”
But Mr. Romney’s aides acknowledge that containing Mr. Gingrich will require a delicate balance between giving him too much — or too little — attention at any given moment.
An approaching lull in the campaign — with no debates scheduled until Feb. 20 and a 17-day break after the caucuses next Tuesday in Colorado and Minnesota — could complicate Mr. Gingrich’s less robustly financed campaign. He has been sustained by the free attention he has drawn in debates and the news coverage.
But it is Mr. Romney who is leaving Florida as the undisputed front-runner in the race, a point underscored by the decision of the Secret Service to place him under its protection, the only Republican candidate to warrant it.