Florida, the fourth state to vote this primary season, was not only the biggest prize yet, but also the purest test of where the party stands nationally.
Unlike earlier primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Florida’s contest was open only to registered Republicans; about seven in 10 voters identified themselves as somewhat or very conservative, according to exit polls.
Though Romney’s victory could be a turning point, senior Republicans say the race for the nomination is far from over.
“Florida is a big and diverse state that will be a crucial state in the fall. This is an important win for Romney,” said Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian political organization. “But given all the ups and downs we’ve had, I don’t think you can call this for Romney just yet.”
The size and breadth of Romney’s win provide the first real evidence that he has the potential to coalesce a party that has been deeply split between its establishment wing, which backs him, and the insurgent forces of the tea party movement, which have been suspicious of his moderate record.
Romney showed resilience and a willingness to alter tactics after his loss in the South Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich, who surged in the polls before the Florida primary only to be beaten back in part by a more aggressive Romney in the final debates. As Philip Rucker explained:
Mitt Romney regained the upper hand in the Republican presidential race last Thursday when he and his campaign machinery focused a series of carefully orchestrated attacks on rival Newt Gingrich’s character and temperament.
The effort reflected a disciplined but more combative campaign operation that for the first time simultaneously pummeled its chief Republican rival and President Obama, while managing to keep attention on Romney as a fiscal problem-solver. Romney’s advisers said that they were pleased with how rattled Gingrich seemed to be in Florida, and that the campaign plan there would be a model for how they continue to wage battle against the former House speaker.
The contrast between the two campaigns’ approaches was most evident last Thursday.
Gingrich was in Mount Dora, addressing a rally “as a citizen,” he said, and he erupted in a tirade against Romney, calling him “some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs that forecloses on Florida, and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
Romney was in Jacksonville, delivering a carefully scripted speech beneath a 30-foot banner that read: “OBAMA ISN’T WORKING.” Speaking from a printing plant that is closing after a century in business, the former Massachusetts governor was fiery but composed and accused the president of governing from “fantasy land.” He took no questions from the audience or reporters, instead letting his remarks drive his two main themes: fixing the economy and defeating Obama.