Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich saw the momentum of his South Carolina victory vanish in Florida, where he faced a more diverse electorate and an overwhelming blitz of negative advertising from rival Mitt Romney.
Mr. Romney and his supporters used their war chests to fund ads that portrayed Mr. Gingrich as a lobbyist complicit in the foreclosure crisis, a candidate with too much personal "baggage" to beat President Obama and a callous opportunist who demeaned Hispanics.
"The more voters got to know Newt and scratch the surface, the more concerns there were about him," said Republican strategist Chris Ingram of Tampa, Fla. "When Romney started pointing that out, people started to think, 'If all this dirt is coming out when Republicans are going at him, imagine what Obama will do.'"
The war over the airwaves wasn't an even fight. From Jan. 1 through Jan. 25, Mr. Romney and his allies bought 12,786 ads in Florida on broadcast and national cable channels. Mr. Gingrich and his supporters purchased 210 ads during the same period, according to data analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Mr. Romney and his supporters outspent the Gingrich camp about $15.4 million to $3.4 million through Monday.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile noted that Mr. Romney has been airing attack ads against Mr. Gingrich since the Iowa caucuses, and said Mr. Gingrich should have been prepared to respond more effectively in Florida.
"Mr. Gingrich, a student of history, failed to understand the second rule in politics: Know thy enemy," Ms. Brazile said. "Clearly, the former speaker must have anticipated Romney's continuing assault on his character, his record and many weaknesses. Rather than have a counterpunch ready, the speaker was once again caught flat-footed."
On Jan. 22, the day after his win in South Carolina, Mr. Gingrich had an 8-percentage-point lead over Mr. Romney in one Florida poll. But nine days later, Mr. Gingrich was soundly beaten by the former Massachusetts governor in a result that raises fresh doubts about Mr. Gingrich's candidacy.
Rather than respond to the attacks with substantive arguments, Mr. Gingrich often resorted to complaining about Mr. Romney's tactics. He called his rival "deceitful" and "maniacal" and claimed that Mr. Romney was running the most dishonest campaign in history.
The Romney attacks made an impression. A Miami Herald poll found that 52 percent of Florida voters had a negative view of Mr. Gingrich's consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. But Mr. Gingrich's attacks on Mr. Romney's work for Bain Capital didn't take hold; three-fourths of GOP voters said they had a positive view of Mr. Romney's tenure at the helm of the venture-capital firm.
Mr. Gingrich also found the Florida landscape much different from South Carolina. Tea party and evangelical Christian voters played a big part in Mr. Gingrich's win in South Carolina, but they were less of a factor in Florida.
Christian conservatives are prominent in the Florida Panhandle. But more than 70 percent of registered Republican voters in the Miami-Dade County region, where Mr. Gingrich based his campaign, are Cuban-Americans. About 14 percent of the overall GOP primary vote comes from Miami-Dade County.
Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Romney of being anti-immigrant, but the charge appeared to fizzle as Mr. Romney countered with endorsements from several prominent Cuban-American leaders, and Sen. Marco Rubio, also of Cuban heritage, chastised Mr. Gingrich for his attacks.
Overall in Florida, 11 percent of GOP voters are Hispanic, about twice the level of Hispanic voters in South Carolina.
Mr. Gingrich, who prides himself on the insurgent style of his top-down campaign, also couldn't match Mr. Romney's more muscular organization in the nation's first big-state primary.
"Geographically, Florida is so spread out and very expensive," Mr. Ingram said. "That was certainly a problem for Newt. That's where Romney's organization and his funding prowess gave him an advantage."
Mr. Ingram said Mr. Gingrich's loss in Florida also raises questions about the tea party's ability to mobilize behind Mr. Gingrich or another conservative candidate.
"The tea party's influence in this campaign is diminished with Romney's win," he said. "They're not really unified."
At campaign headquarters in Orlando, Fla., a defiant Mr. Gingrich stood among supporters who held up signs that said "46 states to go." Mr. Gingrich, who didn't mention Mr. Romney in his remarks, said the signs were a taunt aimed at the "elite media" who had declared his candidacy dead many times.
"Florida did something very important, coming on top of South Carolina," Mr. Gingrich said. "It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate."
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