Declaring that he is ready to bring an end to the Obama era, Mitt Romney relished his easy win in the Florida primary Tuesday by quickly dismissing his Republican rivals and tearing into the White House's current occupant.
"Three years ago this week, a newly elected President Obama faced the American people and said that if he couldn't turn the economy around in three years, he'd be looking at a one-term proposition," Romney reminded his supporters Tuesday night in Tampa. "We're here to collect."
The former Massachusetts governor, relieved to put behind him the momentum-halting loss he suffered in the South Carolina primary, tried to sound presidential in his Florida victory speech. His focus on President Barack Obama recalled Romney's original primary strategy to look past the rest of the GOP field. But his goal to appear to rise above the primary fray got sidetracked by Newt Gingrich's surprise South Carolina win.
For the past week Romney put aside most of his anti-Obama rhetoric and primarily attacked the rest of Republican field. That paid off, particularly in two Florida debates during which Romney delivered a series of verbal blows to Gingrich.
Romney defeated Gingrich by 14 percentage points, 46 percent to 32 percent. Rick Santorum, with 13 percent, ran a distant third, while Ron Paul received 7 percent of the vote.
Significantly, Romney made a statement in Florida by winning more votes than Gingrich and Santorum combined. During his victory speech, Romney tried to begin to put behind the intraparty rivalry.
"As this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching," he said. "They like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak. But I've got some news for them: A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us."
According to exit polls, Romney received backing from 58 percent of Florida voters who said that choosing a candidate who could beat Obama was their top priority. Gingrich picked up 33 percent of those voters, while Santorum collected 6 percent and Paul 2 percent.
There were some bright spots for Gingrich: He received support from 45 percent of voters who wanted a true conservative candidate. Santorum picked up 30 percent of the true-conservative vote, followed by Paul at 14 percent, and Romney with only 10 percent.
This adds fuel to Gingrich's strategy to make himself the conservative option to Romney.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," said Gingrich to his supporters in Orlando. As he spoke, people in the crowd held up signs that read "46 states to go."
As a nod to the signs, Gingrich pledged, "We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August."
During his concession speech, Gingrich did not congratulate Romney. Instead the former speaker of the House scoffed at Romney's campaign war chest and promised to repeal most of Obama's agenda if elected.
"We are going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months," Gingrich said. "This is what a serious conservative president is like, who is bold and is prepared to change Washington despite the screams of the establishment of both parties."
Florida had less evangelical voters than either South Carolina or Iowa: 40 percent of Florida's GOP voters Tuesday identified themselves as born-again Christians. Gingrich won those voters, earning 39 percent, despite continuing questions about his past and whether he has changed his ways (see "Has Newt Gingrich changed?" by Marvin Olasky, June 18, 2011). The battle for second place among evangelical voters in Florida went to Romney with 36 percent over Santorum at 19 percent.
Romney did give a brief nod to evangelical voters on Tuesday night, pledging to support the conscience protections of religious providers. "I will defend religious liberty and overturn regulations that trample on our first freedom," Romney said.
This was likely in response to Gingrich, who spent the final hours of the Florida campaign openly courting religious voters. Warning that religion in America is under attack, Gingrich included as evidence the Obama administration's push to require Catholic organizations to cover birth control in their healthcare plans. He called it a "fundamental assault on the right of the freedom of religion."
Meanwhile, Santorum had long left Florida behind. Speaking to supporters Tuesday night in Las Vegas, former senator from Pennsylvania rebuked his rivals for the negative tone of the Florida primary.
"This campaign went downhill," Santorum said. "We didn't get into the melee of the negativism. The American public does not want to see two or three candidates get into a mud wrestling match where everyone walks away dirty."
Santorum also refuted Gingrich's assertion that Gingrich is the lone true conservative in the campaign who can win. He promised to continue to run an issue-oriented campaign by tying the healthcare law Massachusetts passed under Romney's governorship to the healthcare law congress passed under Obama's watch.
"If you want a strong principled conservative who's not going to be the issue in the campaign, who is going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign, vote for me," Santorum said.
He also declared that his campaign brought in more than $200,000 in donations on Tuesday. While having raised only $920,000 in the last quarter of 2011, Santorum reportedly hauled in $4.2 million in January since his win in Iowa.
But he still lags far behind in money and infrastructure to Romney. During the last three months of 2011, Romney took in approximately $24.3 million.
Meanwhile, Gingrich raised $9.8 million from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. But the former speaker's campaign spent $8.1 million during that time.
Yet even Romney trails Obama's fundraising machine. While the Florida primary results came in Tuesday night, the president appeared at a fundraising dinner at a private residence in Chevy Chase, Md. With nearly 70 guests in attendance, tickets for the dinner started at $35,800 per couple.
Romney took on Obama Tuesday night, contrasting his leadership experience in business and as an Olympic organizer to the president's three years in the White House.
"Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time for you to get out of the way," Romney said. "We will build an America where 'hope' is a new job with a paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker."
But as much as he would like to focus just on Obama, Romney still is not able to declare himself the formal Republican nominee.
He had a decisive win in Florida. But with just 84 committed delegates out of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination, this race is still in its early stages. And, if his rivals' words on Tuesday are any indication, Romney still could have a long fight on his hands.
"We are in third place when it comes to delegates," Ron Paul told his supporters in Nevada on Tuesday night. "That is what really counts. And we've only gotten started."