Romney, whose defeat in Florida four years ago effectively ended his hopes of winning the nomination, attracted solid support across the Sunshine State and among key groups this time as he rebounded from a stinging double-digit loss to Gingrich in South Carolina 10 days before.
Before a jubilant audience in Tampa, Romney used his victory speech to take aim at President Obama and his record on the economy. “Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses,” he said. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow. Now it’s time for you to get out of the way.”
Romney also addressed the tone of the Florida campaign. Democrats, he said, may believe that the primary campaign will leave Republicans “divided and weak.” “A competitive primary does not divide us,” he said. “It prepares us. And when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.”
Gingrich, who appeared in Orlando, did not congratulate Romney on his victory. Instead, standing before supporters holding placards that read “46 states to go,” he vowed to keep fighting for the nomination. “We are going to contest every place, and we’re going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August,” he said.
The former House speaker noted the imbalance in spending between his campaign and Romney’s in Florida but said he would depend on people power to defeat money power. And he issued a direct appeal to voters who want to shake up Washington: “We believe it is cheating our grandchildren to not insist on fundamental, basic change in Washington, even if the establishment doesn’t like it.”
Long seen as a critical firewall among Romney’s top advisers, Florida became just that for a candidate whose wobbly performance in South Carolina opened the door to Gingrich’s resurgent candidacy.
Florida’s primary has once again altered the dynamic of the GOP race. February, which includes five contests, will play out on terrain highly favorable to Romney. That leaves Gingrich with the challenge of trying to consolidate the conservative vote if he is to revive his candidacy for a third time in this campaign.
The personal attacks that characterized the Florida campaign foreshadow a potentially long and divisive nomination battle, especially if Gingrich makes good on his vow to keep fighting for months.