HOLLYWOOD, Florida – Mitt Romney won a crushing victory in the Florida
Republican primary Tuesday, in a contest that saw the former Massachusetts
governor sharpen his tone against his competitors and put them on the
That tough line of attack, which included strong debate
performances and nearly $16 million in advertising against his chief rival,
former speaker of the US House Newt Gingrich, helped Romney garner 46 percent of
the vote to Gingrich’s 32%. The two other candidates, former Pennsylvania
senator Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, trailed far behind with 13% and
Now Romney has decisively captured two states in the
GOP-nominating process and reclaimed the momentum from his stinging loss to
Gingrich in South Carolina.
His victory has not only returned him to the
frontrunner position but has encouraged some to describe him as having nearly
clinched the nomination.
As such, the battle-hardened Romney seemed to
pivot from his heavy assault on Gingrich and turn the fire on the man who’s
always been his chief target this campaign season: US President Barack
“Primary contests are not easy – and they’re not supposed to be,”
Romney told the cheering supporters who turned out to celebrate his win Tuesday
night. “A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us.”
Romney has always featured pointed criticism of Obama in his campaign, his
victory in Florida – the largest and most diverse state to vote so far –
suggested the chief lessons of that preparation was to figure out how to most
effectively land a punch.
On Tuesday night, Romney delivered some of his
harshest jabs at Obama to date.
“Leadership is about taking
responsibility, not making excuses,” he said. “Mr. President, you were elected
to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!”
And he charged, “Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know
better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our
The blunt words in Tuesday night’s victory speech seemed an
indication that Romney has his sights set firmly on the general election and on
dialing up the pressure on the Democratic candidate, and that the tough rhetoric
is a key part of his strategy to capture the hardcore base of the GOP that he
still hasn’t won over.
Romney did well in Florida with a wide range of
constituencies, beating Gingrich among woman by 52% to 28%; Hispanics by 54% to
29%; conservatives 41% to 37%; and Tea Party supporters by the same
But Gingrich edged him out among evangelicals, 38% to 36%, and
held a significant advantage with strong conservatives (41% to 30%) and staunch
Tea Party supporters (45% to 33%).
These were groups that lifted Gingrich
to victory in South Carolina, where there are higher concentrations of each, and
where the public responded well to his attacks on the media and
“You find on the campaign trail you need to do different things
to win,” said major Jewish donor Mel Sembler, a US ambassador, now based in
Florida, of Romney’s new tone, noting some of the criticism directed at the
candidate in the past for being too timid. “Maybe it’s the maturation of the
Sembler, who was one of a handful of individuals thanked by
name by Romney’s wife Ann in her address at the victory party Tuesday night,
added: “He’s fired up and convinced he’s going to win, and I’m convinced he’s
going to win.”
Still, Romney’s resounding victory in Florida was somewhat
marred by low voter turnout, which fell some 15% from 2008, and is interpreted
by political experts as a sign of a lack of enthusiasm among
Jewish Republican turnout also fell from 3% in the last
presidential contest to 1% Tuesday, according to exit polls, though the small
sample size for Jewish voters means the change could be attributable to the
margin of error. Because of the low numbers, pollsters could also not assess
which candidate was preferred by Jewish voters.
Republicans could vote in the primary, and the overwhelming number of Jews in
Florida vote Democrat. In the general election, Jews usually comprise 4% or more
of the electorate.
“It was a primary, and I attribute the low turnout to
[it being] clear that Mitt Romney was going to carry this thing pretty easily,”
said Fred Karlinsky, another key Jewish Floridian backing Romney But, he
continued: “I’m disappointed to hear more did not come out. We’re going to have
to do better here in Florida to get more of the Jewish vote out.”
Sembler argued that Mitt Romney had a rocksolid record on Israel that should
help him appeal to Jews, particularly those dissatisfied with Obama’s approach
Sembler, who accompanied Romney to Israel in 2007, noted that
he has promised to make Israel the first country he visits upon becoming
president. Some in the Jewish community have criticized Obama for not traveling
to Israel during his first term.
In his speech Tuesday, Romney mostly
avoided foreign policy, making only general statements such as, “President Obama
has adopted a strategy of appeasement and apology. I will stand with our friends
and speak out for those seeking freedom.”
In contrast, Gingrich on
Tuesday night gave a list of steps he would take during his first day in office,
including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We will on
that day sign an executive order that will instruct the State Department, that
day, to open the embassy in Jerusalem,” he declared in one of the lines most
enthusiastically received by his audience of supporters.
Many of those in
the crowd carried signs proclaiming that there are still 46 states to go in the
primary contest, showing that Gingrich intended to continue with his bid. He
left Florida Tuesday night to head to Nevada, the next contested
“I don’t think anyone would question Newt’s dedication to Israel,
so that’s not an issue,” said Karlinsky of why one candidate would appeal to
Jewish voters more than the other.
Sembler explained Romney’s reluctance
to echo Gingrich’s position as stemming from a desire to consult with
“He’s not interested in making statements like that without
consulting the Israeli government,” he said.
The Obama campaign, for its
part, argued Tuesday night that the Florida campaign would hurt Romney by
dampening his appeal among Independent voters turned off by the negative tone of
“Team Romney wants voters and the national media to believe
its victory reflects its candidate’s positions. In reality, it is a product of
the fact that Romney and his SuperPAC allies carpetbombed Gingrich by spending
five times as much money on Florida’s airwaves,” a statement put out by the
campaign after the vote read. “Nine out of every 10 ads were negative – by far
the most negative campaign in Florida’s history.”