EAGAN, Minn. — Mitt Romney moved quickly Wednesday to use his big victory in Florida’s GOP presidential primary to debunk long-standing charges from rivals that he is not conservative enough to lead the Republican Party.
Moving his campaign to Minnesota and Nevada, Romney said his win in Florida, where exit polls showed a particularly conservative electorate, made sense because Newt Gingrich, his main rival for the nomination, is “not the pure conservative he would have people believe.”
Pressing the message, Romney’s campaign released a new radio ad in Nevada, where voters will take part in the state’s caucuses on Saturday, emphasizing his support among conservatives.
Despite Romney’s dominating win in Florida, it was clear Wednesday that obstacles remain. He drew fire from some conservatives for saying in a CNN interview that is not worried about the “very poor” and would instead focus as president on the middle class.
Romney told reporters afterward that his words were misinterpreted.
“I’ve said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people, all right?” he said.
In the CNN interview, Romney said he would focus on creating jobs and economic opportunities for the nation’s middle class.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor, because they have a safety net,” he said, citing food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid. He pledged to repair holes in that safety net “if it needs repair.”
“But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans,” Romney continued. “My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich — that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor — that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.”
A number of GOP conservatives lamented that their front-runner had handed Democrats a potentially juicy quote to use against them in a general election.
RedState blog founder Erick Erickson said Romney had “played to the liberal caricature” of Republicans.
In Reno, Nev., a defiant Gingrich accused Romney of pitting Americans against one another based on class, a common charge both men make of President Obama.
“I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other,” Gingrich told a boisterous crowd at the Great Basin Brewing Co. “I am concerned about all of the American people.”
Gingrich abruptly canceled a meeting with popular Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval after his campaign arranged a photo opportunity at Sandoval’s office in Carson City.
Sandoval had endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has since left the race, and is expected to sit out the endorsement game for now. Even Gingrich’s campaign advisers did not know why the cancellation occurred.
“You’re a Republican presidential candidate coming into a state with a Republican governor,” said one irritated Gingrich adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. “It’s common courtesy to meet him.”
Republicans will hold contests in Maine Feb. 4-11; in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7; and in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.
Pivoting to take on the trappings of the nominee, Romney focused on Obama at an afternoon rally in Minnesota on Wednesday.
Gingrich’s advisers boast that they have the most comprehensive list of Republican voters and caucus sites of any operation in Nevada, and are predicting that they will do well on Saturday.
Others say little has been done to put the list to use.
“Gingrich just hasn’t had much of a campaign here,” said Heidi Smith, a Republican activist from northern Nevada. “This is Mitt Romney territory. It’s just a matter of by how much he’ll win.”