Mitt Romney’s lopsided Florida victory over Newt Gingrich proved the Republican front-runner can win conservatives, triumph in debates and fight a bruising campaign that can lay an opponent to waste.
Romney’s Florida win also showed Republicans he can run the kind of national campaign that can defeat President Obama in November.
"Doing well in Florida,” Romney said Tuesday, “is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally."
That’s because Florida is more like the nation than any of the other three early states.
North Florida is the Deep South. Southwest Florida is like the Midwest. Latin America meets New York in Southeast Florida. And it all mixes together along the I-4 corridor from Tampa Bay through Central Florida.
Romney walloped Gingrich in South Florida and among Hispanics statewide, exit polls showed. He won the state’s crucial senior vote, and carried women voters by a big margin. Romney also fought Gingrich to a statistical tie with conservative, evangelical and tea party voters.
Early results indicated he tied Gingrich in North Florida, but was handily winning everywhere else.
“Florida is the nation’s reflecting pool,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004. “It is what New York and Ellis Island used to be, the gateway to the country’s future.”
Before the first ballot was even cast on Election Day, Romney had a cushion of early votes that could have exceeded 60,000. While the other campaigns were silent in early January, Romney advertised on radio and television and aggressively called and mailed early voters, who cast more than 632,000 ballots.
With the big results in from Florida, Castellanos said, the Republican race is almost history, though Gingrich has vowed to fight all the way to the national convention in Tampa this summer.
“This race won’t end tonight, but it will be over,” Castellanos said. “Romney will have done something no other non-incumbent Republican candidate has ever done: He really only lost 1 of the first 4 contests. That’s remarkable.”