Mitt Romney regained his footing as the clear front-runner in the Republican nomination race after sweeping to a victory in yesterday’s primary election in Florida and walloping his main rival Newt Gingrich. With most returns counted, Mr Romney had 46 per cent over 32 per cent for Mr Gingrich.
Victory came at the end of one of the most poisonous primary contests in modern presidential politics. In the blizzard of TV ads in the sunshine state, 68 per cent were rated as negative against Mr Gingrich. Less than 0.1 per cent were crafted to offer a positive image of Mr Romney.
The instant the last polling stations closed the TV networks projected Mr Romney the winner. At his victory rally, Mr Romney focused first on President Barack Obama whom he hopes to take on in November. “Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses,” he declared. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!”
According to exit polls here a full 39 per cent of Republican voters were unhappy with their choices this year. A small majority said Mr Romney had run the most “unfair campaign” in the state, meanwhile. Turn-out was notably low among Jewish voters. Tea Partiers tilted by a small margin more to Romney than Gingrich.
Bloody-mindedness and rancour will play their part, but it is money that will help to determine whether the Florida vote will signal the beginning of the end of the fractious nomination contest or merely the end of the beginning.
As voting began in the Sunshine State yesterday Mr Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, again asserted his determination to remain in the race. His campaign meanwhile announced it had raised $5m in January, a significant uptick in its fund-raising efforts.
He displayed the same determination at his own election night rally. “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate,” Mr Gingrich said as supporters waved signs declaring, “46 states to go”.
The sheer ferocity of the campaign in Florida left some Republican old hands dismayed. I think both of them are damaged by this dogfight in Florida,” veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins said last night.. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a presidential campaign.”
Rick Santorum, who came in third after barely campaigning here, signalled his aversion to the negative tone of the races so far. “We’re not going to do that by mudslinging,” he told supporters in Las Vegas. “If there's one message that I think we got from the campaign in Florida is that Republicans can do better.” The next test comes in Nevada which holds caucus voting on Saturday.
But coming into focus again is the money advantage held by Mr Romney. His campaign and the so-called super-PACs (political actions committees) that support him crushed Mr Gingrich on the airwaves in Florida, outspending him three-to-one. That same imbalance is likely to remain.
Granted much greater scope to boost or hobble candidates by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, the independent PACS had until midnight to identify some of their donors. Last night, a group supporting libertarian Ron Paul said it had received support from the founders of PayPal.
Outside groups have so far poured an astonishing $44m into trying to influence the outcome of the primaries, with a disproportionate amount benefiting Mr Romney, who has spent less of his own money than he did in the 2008 primaries. Mr Gingrich probably would not have been able to remain in the race himself without two donations totalling $10m from Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
The circus shifts now to Nevada which votes on Saturday and Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri which have their turn next Tuesday. Conservative talk radio is mostly with him, as is Sarah Palin, who predicted last night that the race, also being fought by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, will narrow soon. “Romney and Newt Gingrich are the two front runners and at the end of the day it’s one or the other,” she said.
Pugnacious and disdainful as ever, Mr Gingrich told reporters at a polling station that he will stay in the fight for many more months “unless Romney drops out earlier.” But if the momentum created by his South Carolina win slips further away, it may be budget woes that force him to take a more pragmatic look.