Picking up the largest prize to date in the Republican presidential race, Mitt Romney pounded Newt Gingrich to win the Florida primary by a impressive 15% margin and restored himself as the frontrunner in the up-and-down race for the nomination.
Romney, who had been considered too passive, found a new and much more aggressive voice in Florida that supporters say will serve him well as the race for the GOP nod moves on.
“Mitt is a good person, but he stood up to Newt in a way that all Floridians could see,” said former Ambassador Ned Siegel, Jewish outreach chair for the Romney Campaign. “They wanted to see he could take a stand and push back.”
With 98% of precincts reporting, Romney had 46% of Florida GOP votes with Newt Gingrich coming in a distant second with 32%, CNN reported. Rick Santorum, who carried out only little campaign activity in Florida won 13% of the votes and Ron Paul who practically skipped the Sunshine State had 7%.
While many states decided to allocate convention delegates in a proportional method, Florida is still a “winner takes all” state and therefore all of its 50 delegates will go to Romney. He now leads the pack with 87 delegates. It’s way more than any other candidate, but still far from the goal of 1144 delegates needed to secure nomination.
Taking to the stage in Tampa shortly after the race was called, Romney addressed concerns in the GOP that the fierce primary debate could harm the Republican candidate once he faces President Obama in the November elections.
“A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us. And we will win,” Romney said.
Romney’s comeback, political analysts said on Tuesday, is not enough to shut the door on the Republican race, but it does bring back confidence to his campaign and reassures donors who became edgy when their candidate stumbled.
Romney spent an estimated $15 million in Florida and has $20 million more for the upcoming contests in Nevada on Saturday and in Colorado and Minnesotta on February 7.
Gingrich, who failed to repeat the success from neighboring South Carolina, now must recalibrate his message and answer the Romney’s succesful attacks. Gingrich received two $5 million cash infusions from Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, to fund his South Carolina and Florida races. It is not clear if the couple will continue to bankroll the campaign in upcoming states.
Gingrich, speaking to supporters at his Florida headquarters in Orlando, vowed to keep up the race despite his defeat. Signs reading “46 States to Go” were passed out to supporters, in order to make the point that the GOP primary race is far from being over.
“It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader and the Massachusetts liberal,” Gingrich said, adding that he will “be in Tampa as the nominee in August.”
Showing his trademark abrasive style, Gingrich failed to congratulate Romney, a sour note that analysts predicted would hurt him with voters.
Exit polls could not provide data regarding the split in Jewish votes between Romney and Gingrich but it is largely believed that Romney had a stronger showing among Jewish Republicans. His supporters in Florida put together three events in recent weeks and all were well attended.
What exit polls do show, however, is that only 1% of Republican primary voters identified as being Jewish, down from 3% in 2008.
That means there was no shift of Jewish voters to the Republican side. But Siegel attributed that to the fact that the race was not close and predicted Florida Jews would give Romney healthy support if he is picked as the GOP nominee to face off against President Obama.
“We will see tremendous support for Mitt Romney from independent and Democratic Jews,” Siegel predicted.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.