It was a blowout. Mitt Romney won Florida by double digits, taking virtually every economic, ideological and other subset of voters. He carried all but “very conservative” voters and “strongly supports Tea Party” voters. Romney soared past the 45 percent mark, won more than the combined votes for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, and re-established himself as the most favorably-regarded and most-acceptable candidate in a diverse, large state that the GOP much carry in November.
Moreover, he won the contest on the strength of his debate performances (previously a strength for Gingrich) and now has a huge lead in money and organization as the race spreads out across the country.
As for Santorum, his vote total in the low teens, just a hand-full of points ahead of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex), is a disappointment. So far he’s not made the case to the hardcore conservative base that he’s preferable to Gingrich. If he can live off the land in February and stay competitive, he may eventually be able to pick voters off from Gingrich. But right now, he shows no sign that he has been able to build on his victory in the Iowa caucuses (which seem eons ago).
In his victory speech, an obviously ebullient Romney chose to take the high ground, warning Democrats not to take solace in the notion the GOP will come out weakened and divided. (“A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us. And we will win.”) He acknowledged, “Primary contests are not easy, and they’re not supposed to be.” He sounded magnanimous and confident, quickly pivoting to his indictment of President Obama.
Once again, Romney went after Obama’s lack of leadership:
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 then went to the heart of his argument against Obama: he’s failed in his stewardship of the economy and he has the wrong formula for reviving America.
President Obama wants to grow government and continue to amass trillion dollar deficits. I will not just slow the growth of government, I will cut it. I will not just freeze government’s share of the total economy, I will reduce it. And, without raising taxes, I will finally balance the budget.
He then hit hard at the president's hostility to ward the private sector:
President Obama’s view of capitalism is to send your money to his friends’ companies. My vision for free enterprise is to return entrepreneurship to the genius and creativity of the American people. . . . President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy. I will make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for innovators, and for job creators. And unlike the other people running for President, I know how to do that.
His victory speech was also noteworthy for his attention to foreign policy. (“President Obama believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. He is intent on shrinking our military capacity at a time when the world faces rising threats. I will insist on a military so powerful no one would ever think of challenging it.”) And it did contain an appeal to unconvinced Republicans:
My leadership helped build businesses from scratch. My leadership helped save the Olympics from scandal and give our athletes the chance to make us all proud. My leadership cut taxes 19 times and cast over 800 vetoes. We balanced every budget, and we kept our schools first among fifty states. My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity!
But primarily, this was about assuming a commanding lead in the race and demonstrating he is now hardened and prepared to go after the president. He did that. It was perhaps his most presidential speech he has given to date. Victory has a way of doing that for candidates. (Previously tentative candidates come out of the process as plausible presidents.) Romney doesn’t have the nomination in the bag yet. But he’s getting there.