Romney scores victory in Florida primary

Gingrich significantly back in second place

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TAMPA, Fla. — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reclaimed the top spot in the Republican presidential race with a decisive victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary, making him the first candidate to notch two wins and putting him on solid ground heading into the part of the campaign calendar that fits his strengths as a candidate.

News networks called the state for Mr. Romney immediately after the polls closed, and the only suspense as the night wore on was whether Mr. Romney could break 50 percent of the vote, which it turned out he did not.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Romney had 46 percent to 32 percent for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas trailed, with 13 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

“Thank you to the people in this room and the people all over Florida. Thank you for this great victory,” Mr. Romney said, after the crowd greeted him with cheers of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!”

Mr. Romney congratulated his Republican rivals in his victory speech and moved on to hammer President Obama, saying the Democrat has failed to improve the economy, presiding over 35 straights months in which the nation’s unemployment rate stayed above 8 percent.

“Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!” he said, while vowing to cut federal spending, balance the federal budget and repeal “Obamacare.”

“My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity!”

The contest for the state’s 50 delegates essentially boiled down to a two-man race between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich — as evidenced by decisions to campaign elsewhere by the other two candidates.

Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul were stumping Tuesday in Colorado and Nevada. The two Western states will hold caucuses over the next seven days.

Mr. Romney also reached out to the other candidates, congratulating them for a “hard-fought” contest.

“Primary contests aren’t easy, and they’re not supposed to be,” he said. “A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us and we will win.”

In contrast, Mr. Gingrich’s concession speech did not congratulate Mr. Romney on his win. Instead, he told supporters, in an Orlando, Fla., room filled with signs noting that 46 states had yet to vote, that he will continue to challenge Mr. Romney everywhere possible.

“We are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August,” he said, referring to the site of the Republican National Convention.

He claimed the results showed that this is now “two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate,” whom he did not name. He also argued that he’s come back before and will do it again.

Speaking in an off-the-cuff manner, Mr. Gingrich said he plans in the days ahead to forge a “people’s campaign — not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street-funded campaign.” He said he will unveil soon a new “contract” similar to the Contract With America he introduced for the 1994 elections that made him U.S. House speaker.

Mr. Santorum offered a much different take, claiming the Florida results spell trouble for Mr. Gingrich, who he said had missed a clear opportunity to unify conservative voters in Florida.

As a result, he told CNN, conservative voters will be looking for “a different conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.”

Following his fourth-place finish, Mr. Paul told a crowd in Nevada that he called to congratulate Mr. Romney on his win, while reminding them that he is still sitting in third place when it comes to the delegate count.

“That is what really counts, and we only really just started,” he said, sparking applause from the crowd.

But by that metric, Mr. Romney’s Florida win was huge, letting him sweep all 50 Sunshine State delegates, giving him 84, more than Mr. Gingrich (27), Mr. Paul (10) and Mr. Santorum (8) combined.

The win also eases some of the pain from Mr. Romney second-place primary finish here four years ago to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who went on to win the party’s nomination, but who endorsed Mr. Romney this time. It also allows him to regroup from the 12-percentage-point drubbing he took from Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day at his state campaign headquarters in Tampa, Mr. Romney said that he learned a lesson from his disappointing second-place showing in the Palmetto State — namely, that he couldn’t let attacks against his record go unanswered.

“I’ll tell you, if you attack me, I’m not going to just sit back, I’m going to fight back, and I’m going to fight back hard,” he said, attributing his resurgence here to the round-the-clock ad campaign that his camp waged against Mr. Gingrich since South Carolina.

Mr. Gingrich spent much of his time in recent days airing his frustration with what he called “falsehoods” in the Romney camp’s ads, which, among other things, raised questions about the ethics cloud that hung over him when he was pushed out as House speaker in 1999 and the $1.6 million his firm received doing consulting work on behalf of Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that many conservatives blame in the housing-market bubble and collapse.

Mr. Gingrich also opened himself up to additional ridicule from the Romney campaign this week when he advocated for a moon base that could apply for statehood when its population reaches 13,000 people.

Mr. Romney said the proposal, made in the space-jobs heavy state of Florida, was the latest example of Mr. Gingrich pandering to voters with costly proposals pointing out his support for a new interstate highway and harbor dredging in South Carolina and a new VA hospital in New Hampshire.

According to a CNN exit poll, Mr. Romney’s greatest strength was among voters whose top priority was picking a nominee who could win in November. Such voters — who made up 45 percent of Tuesday’s electorate — backed Mr. Romney by 58 percent to 33 percent.

In addition, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich fought to an effective draw with voters who support the tea party movement and among white evangelicals — two conservative-leaning blocs that Mr. Gingrich needed to win big. Instead, Mr. Romney won tea party supporters by 40 percent to 38 percent, while Mr. Gingrich finished ahead among evangelicals by 39 percent to 36 percent — both statistically insignificant margins.

After casting her vote at the Kate Jackson Community Center in historic Hyde Park, Margo Harrod told The Washington Times that she decided to back Mr. Romney as the man with the best chance to unseat the president.

“I think Romney is the most electable, and I think he can beat Obama,” she said before commenting on Mr. Gingrich’s personal history, which includes multiple divorces and adulteries.

“I think Gingrich has too much baggage. I think Democrats are just champing at the bit to have him run so they can destroy him. I think Mitt’s pretty squeaky clean,” she said.

The CNN exit poll also suggested that this was a broad problem. Mr. Romney defeated Mr. Gingrich among married Florida women by 51 percent to 28 percent.

Karen Dearolf said she studied the candidates with her husband, prayed and eventually came to the conclusion that she would vote for Mr. Romney. She also alluded to theological issues with Mr. Romney’s Mormonism that have hurt him with voters such as her in the past.

“I’m a Southern Baptist, and I’m voting for Romney. That’s kind of unique, because I see a lot of people who are having difficulty with that,” she said. “I understand where people are coming from, but again I’m voting for a president, I’m not voting for a pastor. I think there is a difference there.”

She also showered Mr. Romney wife, Ann, with praise and — in another veiled shot at Mr. Gingrich’s personal lifestyle — said Mr. Romney showed he was a “person of integrity” by standing by his wife after her diagnoses of multiple sclerosis in 1998 and breast cancer in 2008.

The race now starts to spread out into more states, a calendar that will challenge some of the more poorly funded candidates such as Mr. Gingrich, who has limited resources and depends in large part on debates to get out his message.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, stands to benefit, after consistently showing the ability to rake in campaign cash, which allowed him to run several television and radio ads here in the state’s costly media market.

The Kantar Media’s CMG, which tracks campaign spending, said Tuesday that Mr. Romney and his allies funneled more than $15 million into television ads, just one of which was positive — and it was in Spanish. Overall, the group found that 92 percent of the ads aired here were negative.

But if his victory speech was any indication, Mr. Romney plans to pivot from attacking Mr. Gingrich to criticizing Mr. Obama.

“In his State of the Union Address, the president actually said, ‘Let’s remember how we got here.’ Don’t worry, Mr. President, we remember exactly how we got here! You won the election!” Mr. Romney said Tuesday night.

“Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses. In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!” he said.

For his part, Mr. Gingrich also spoke in “when I am president” terms, speaking about what he’ll do on his first day as president. Mr. Gingrich said he will ask Congress to stay in session to repeal three laws [-] the president’s health care law, the Sarbanes-Oxley law regulating the securities industry and the Dodd-Frank law governing Wall Street reforms and consumer protection.

“My goal is to have all three bills sitting there waiting so the minute I am sworn in, I can sign all three, and we’re off to a pretty good opening morning,” Mr. Gingrich said.

He also managed to toss a barb at the singing abilities of both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama, saying, “I’m not going to compete with Obama in singing because I’m not running for entertainer in chief, I’m running for president. Mr. President, you cannot sing your way past the disaster of your presidency.”

The president made headlines last week by singing an Al Green tune at a fundraiser; Mr. Romney got attention for singing “America the Beautiful” during the Florida contest.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report from Washington.

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