Romney wins landslide victory in Florida Republican primary

Obama staffers: GOP candidate ran the most negative campaign in southern state’s history.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, JPOST CORRESPONDENT
February 2, 2012 07:02
Romney with Florida supporters

Romney with Florida supporters_390. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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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 ropes.

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 7%, respectively.

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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 Obama.

“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.”

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Though 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 economy.”

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 margin.

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 elites.

“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 candidate.”

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 constituents.

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.

Only registered 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.”

Still, 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 to Israel.

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 state.

“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 Jerusalem.

“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 the contest.

“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.”

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