(Updates with Gingrich, Santorum and Paul remarks, starting in seventh paragraph. For more 2012 campaign news, see ELECT.)
Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney won Florida’s Republican presidential primary, re-establishing himself as the front- runner for his party’s nomination in a race that rival Newt Gingrich has pledged to drag on for months.
Romney told supporters in Tampa tonight he is ready “to lead this party,” and that Republicans will be united once the nomination is decided. “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us,” he said.
Romney’s triumph dealt a blow to Gingrich just 10 days after the former U.S. House speaker won the South Carolina primary. Romney rebounded with more aggressive attacks on his rival to score a victory that could make it more difficult for Gingrich to raise the money and have the support to force the prolonged battle that he has vowed to wage.
The next battleground is Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 4 and where a sizable Mormon community gives Romney, who practices that religion, a potential advantage.
In Florida, Romney had 47 percent of the vote with 96 percent of precincts counted, according to the Associated Press. Gingrich had 32 percent, followed by former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 13 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul with 7 percent.
At Romney’s victory party in a packed convention center hall in downtown Tampa, his supporters exultantly counted down the seconds until Florida’s polls closed, letting out a roar and waving tiny American flags as he was immediately projected the winner by television networks including CNN and Fox. About 75 miles northeast in Orlando, barely 50 people milled around at Gingrich’s gathering as the race was called.
Gingrich spoke to about 200 people a little more than an hour later and sought to put a positive spin on the day’s results. He said that combined, the Florida and South Carolina votes had made it ‘clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate,” the term he often uses for Romney.
“I pledge to you my life, my fortune and my sacred honor,” Gingrich said as he ended his remarks, paraphrasing a line in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Romney’s win in the diverse state gives the former Massachusetts governor all 50 of Florida’s delegates and pushes the Republican race into a new phase in which he and the other contenders will be criss-crossing the country vying for the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Romney is the first to win more than one nominating contest this year. He finished first by 16 percentage points in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary, then slipped to second, 12 points behind Gingrich, in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 vote.
Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa in a recount after state party officials originally said Romney won the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.
While Romney emerges from Florida with momentum and a substantial edge over his competitors, he also enters what could be a months-long intraparty fight marked by assaults on how he earned his fortune, his ability to identify with ordinary people during a time of prolonged joblessness, and how committed he is to many of the party’s core principles.
Some Republicans have expressed concerns about how damaging such a fight might be to the party’s efforts to oust President Barack Obama in November.
Romney has “got to get beyond the ‘Just win, baby’ philosophy,” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “It’s not enough just to win ugly. You’ve got to offer something positive. And if Romney just decides he’s going to win by burning down Gingrich, and Gingrich responds by throwing mud on Romney, it’s going to be a painful process.”
The campaign in Florida was the nastiest so far in the nomination fight, with 91 percent of all television ads aired in the state over the final week classified as negative by Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York-based firm that tracks the commercials. Romney and his allies pounded Gingrich with television ads that criticized his record and character, outspending him more than 6-1, according to CMAG.
In commercials and on the campaign trail, Romney rehashed Gingrich’s 1997 House ethics reprimand and his consulting work for Freddie Mac, the federally backed home mortgage company that is unpopular in Florida, where 23 percent of all mortgaged homes are delinquent or in foreclosure, the most in the nation, according to Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services.
Romney and his supporters spent $13.3 million on broadcast ads in Florida as of yesterday, compared with $2.5 million in advertising time bought by Gingrich and his backers, CMAG found.
“If you’re attacked, I’m not going to sit back,” Romney told reporters in Tampa as voters went to the polls today. “I’m going to fight back, fight back hard.”
Gingrich, casting his candidacy in populist terms, answered by charging that Romney was dishonest and beholden to Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers who benefited from government bailouts.
“We can’t beat all the money power of Goldman Sachs, all the Romney people; we can’t beat the Romney money ourselves,” Gingrich told voters in Pensacola, Florida, yesterday. “We can’t beat the dishonesty of his campaign by ourselves. We need witnesses who are prepared to go out and prepared to stand for conservatism.”
Exit polls indicated that Florida voters were hit hard by the sagging economy, particularly the housing crisis, and dissatisfied with their presidential contenders, according to preliminary results reported by the Associated Pres. Half said foreclosures had been a major problem in their communities, and about 60 percent said the economy had been the biggest driver of their choice of candidate -- dwarfing the one-quarter who cited soaring federal budget deficits.
Fewer than six in 10 said they were satisfied with the candidates among whom they had chosen.
Feehery said the Republican Party is “going into its own version of class warfare,” pitting the traditional Republican establishment, represented by Romney, against the Tea Party- aligned faction that dislikes him.
“They don’t like Mitt Romney for a variety of reasons. They don’t like that he’s only paid 15 percent in taxes, they don’t like that he’s the embodiment of the Republican elite,” said Feehery. “He’s not going to change his personality, so he’s got to figure out how he can construct policies that actually appeal to these folks.”
Gingrich has started plotting a strategy for the seven contests in February where his aides say he has a chance to hang on, particularly because in most of the states delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis -- rather than in Florida’s winner-take-all fashion.
“We are going to go all the way to the convention,” Gingrich told a crowd of about 200 at the Renaissance Airport Hotel in Orlando. “We are going to win in Tampa. And we are going to be the nominee with your help.”
Santorum, after a weekend break from campaigning to care for a sick daughter in Pennsylvania, also said he is staying in the race. He ran no ads in Florida and had begun to focus on other states before today’s vote.
He spoke tonight from Las Vegas, offering himself as the candidate best able to “draw a clear contrast with President Obama.”
Paul, who invested little effort in Florida, is concentrating on gathering delegates from caucus states where it is cheaper to campaign. He spent today campaigning in Colorado and Nevada.
“We’ve only gotten started,” he told supporters tonight in Henderson, Nevada. An “irate, tireless minority” does well in caucus states, he said.
--With assistance from Michael C. Bender in Orlando, Florida, and Catherine Dodge and Mark Silva in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Tampa, Florida at email@example.com; Lisa Lerer in Tampa at firstname.lastname@example.org
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