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Five things we learned from Florida's Republican primary, including money and negativity work

Florida spoke loudly and clearly Tuesday and, while it may take months to be sure, probably picked the Republican presidential nominee. A contest that looked uncertain when a wounded Mitt Romney came to America's biggest battleground state 10 days ago now looks much clearer thanks to Florida Republicans.

Five lessons from Florida:

1. Money and negativity work.

You can win a campaign if your opponent outspends you, but in a state where TV ads drive campaigns it's close to impossible to win if you're outspent nearly 5-to-1. That's the fundamental reason Gingrich saw his momentum ground into the dirt after he overwhelmingly won South Carolina Jan. 21.

Romney and his allies spent $15.4 million on TV and radio ads, compared with $3.7 million by Gingrich and his allies. More than nine out of 10 ads that ran across Florida over the past week were negative, according to Kantar Media.

The overwhelming negativity of Romney's campaign lately won't improve his image — an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed his unfavorability rating jumped 20 points among independents since November — but it did the job in knocking down the real threat from Gingrich.

There may be an overkill question. The Romney team tore into Gingrich so fiercely that it succeeded in firing up conservative leaders like Rush Limbaugh, who was disgusted by what he saw as the GOP establishment stomping on the tea party.

2. Romney is a much stronger candidate today.

He may still have that human connection problem, but no one can question his toughness or willingness to play hardball after Florida.

Already a consistently strong debater, Romney brought on board a new debate coach after his South Carolina drubbing. It worked. At debates in Tampa and Jacksonville, Romney looked comfortable with a newly aggressive style that left Gingrich reeling.

Barack Obama should worry.

3. The nuts and bolts of campaigns matter.

By 7:07 p.m. Tuesday, anyone monitoring Florida's election returns saw Romney leading Gingrich by a more than 2-to-1 ratio. Those reflected early votes and absentee votes that the Romney campaign aggressively went after early in January while the rest of the field was focused on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

TV is crucial in winning statewide Florida campaigns, but candidates dismiss the importance of early votes at their peril.

Neither the Gingrich campaign nor Winning Our Future, the Super PAC trying to help him, seemed to understand that. The campaign started chasing absentee ballot voters weeks after Romney's people had already sent multiple mail pieces to them. The Super PAC's TV spots were elusive until days before primary day. Too late. Exit polls showed only 29 percent of Florida Republicans made up their mind in the last few days.

How you run a campaign is a good measure of how you'll lead any enterprise. Romney has overseen a steady and formidable campaign machine. Gingrich's campaign has been much like the erratic caricature his critics deride.

4. Romney can win conservatives.

It's time to toss aside the narrative that he has a low ceiling of support among conservative Republicans. Florida was the first closed primary race of the year — no Democrats or independents allowed — and Romney won overwhelmingly.

Despite Florida's moderate battleground reputation, the GOP primary electorate is conservative — they're the same voters who made tea party newcomer Rick Scott their gubernatorial nominee in 2010 and who kicked Charlie Crist to the curb in favor of Marco Rubio.

The one in three Republicans who said they "strongly support" the tea party movement heavily favored Gingrich over Romney. But overall the exit polls showed Romney and Gingrich essentially tied among born-again evangelicals, self-described conservatives, and tea party supporters. Florida is where Romney finally broke apart that conservative ceiling.

And by the way, it looks as if tea party Republicans have reached a ceiling in Florida. Two out of three Republicans say they support the tea party, but overwhelmingly the most important candidate quality for Florida Republicans was their perceived ability to beat Obama. On that score Romney led everybody else by more than two to one.

5. Florida scored with its early primary.

State Republican leaders took a gamble by setting a Jan. 31 presidential primary in violation of national party rules, but there is no question it paid off. Not only did the state take center stage in the volatile early primary fight, it showed it belongs there.

If Romney becomes the nominee, which now seems likely, he will be a stronger candidate having competed hard in a state that looks like America. Winning a Florida Republican primary means reaching out to archconservatives, moderates, Hispanics, urbanites and rural Republicans. Romney showed he can.

South Carolina used to claim that no one wins the nomination without winning the Palmetto State. By the time Republicans crown their nominee in Tampa, Florida will likely have been proven the more reliable testing ground.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com. Information from the New York Times was included in this report.

Five things we learned from Florida's Republican primary, including money and negativity work 01/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 11:11am]
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