TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney rolled to victory in the Florida primary Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from Newt Gingrich and reclaiming his dominant position in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The commanding win by Romney offered a forceful response to the concerns that were raised about his candidacy only 10 days ago after a stinging loss to Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. It also raised new questions about whether Gingrich can persuade Republicans of his electability.
“I stand ready to lead this party and to lead this nation,” Romney told supporters here, urging Republicans to remain united and to focus on the party’s goal of defeating President Barack Obama.
The outcome of the Florida primary promised to reorder the rest of the Republican field. Sensing vulnerability in Gingrich, Rick Santorum began running an advertisement in Nevada and Colorado comparing Gingrich’s positions to the dual Democratic villainy of Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Obama, saying his support for policies including the Wall Street bailout was “a slap in the face to the Tea Party.”
The victory by Romney, which was built by a diverse coalition of the Republican electorate, allowed him to return to the hard job of pulling together a divided party and begin anew his argument that he has the best chance to beat Obama. Yet Gingrich indicated that he was staying in the race, with a “46 states to go” sign hoisted at his election night party in Orlando.
Yet advisers to Romney pointed to his success here as a harbinger of his strength in a general election challenge against Obama. No state where Republicans have competed this year is more reflective of the nation’s geographical, political and ethnic diversity than Florida, and its complexity seemed to help Romney to turn back the grassroots coalition that Gingrich had been counting on.
“Primary contests are not easy, and they’re not supposed to be,” Romney said in his victory speech. “Our opponents in the other party have been watching and they like to comfort themselves that a competitive primary will leave us divided and weak. A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win.”
Romney’s support in urban areas with concentrations of affluent and retired Republicans was enough to overcome Tea Party supporters, evangelicals and self-described “very conservative” voters who have generally coalesced around Gingrich — although he also seemed to gain strength among Tea Party supporters.
The night also raised questions about Gingrich’s strength moving forward. If there was one part of the state with a countermessage, it was its northwestern panhandle, which resembles the nation’s South. Gingrich and Romney won equal support there, according to surveys of voters leaving polling stations — giving hope to Gingrich for the coming Southern contests and pause to Romney, who struggled for traction in South Carolina.