Florida Republicans signaled Tuesday they are more interested in mounting a vigorous challenge to President Barack Obama in the fall than in venting their frustration now. Mitt Romney's convincing victory in the presidential primary confirmed he is the Republican best positioned for the general election, and it reinforced the importance of a large, diverse swing state playing a prominent role in choosing party nominees. Because of Florida, Romney is a better candidate with broader support — and the clear favorite to return to Tampa in August to accept the Republican nomination for president.
For all of the talk about the tea party influence in Florida and Newt Gingrich's railing about elites in the political party and the media, Republicans embraced the party establishment's candidate. And Romney used a well-established strategy to win. He developed a superior campaign organization, far outspent his opponents and aired many more television ads. He performed well in two Florida debates, and coming off his loss to Gingrich in South Carolina he attacked, attacked, attacked.
The result: Romney won convincingly in Central and South Florida and piled up advantages among men and women, whites and Hispanics, young and old. Gingrich won a number of smaller counties in North Florida and split the vote among tea party voters, signaling Romney has more work to do with the most conservative Republicans. But while Romney has new momentum, the former House speaker leaves Florida much weaker than he arrived and more driven by his own ego than a realistic chance to win the nomination.
Romney remains a flawed candidate. He has yet to develop a compelling agenda or define himself to many voters. His quest to satisfy unconvinced conservative Republicans and his negative campaign ads threaten to alienate independent voters and push him further away from his more mainstream record as Massachusetts governor. Despite an easy win Tuesday night, as the Republican nominee for president Romney would find it more difficult to win Florida in the general election. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/BayNews 9 poll showed him essentially tied with Obama, despite Florida's economic issues and the fact the president has yet to start campaigning.
In a general election campaign, Romney would have a tougher time blaming Obama for Florida's weak economy and high unemployment rate at the same time Republican Gov. Rick Scott takes credit for creating more jobs and housing begins to rebound. His harsh anti-immigration rhetoric would not play as well among all Hispanic voters, who backed Obama four years ago. Romney also would have to explain how his opposition to national health care reform that benefits so many Floridians squares with his support for similar health care reform as governor in Massachusetts. This is a candidate who appears firm but flexible in his core beliefs.
Romney has to slog on through the primary season as long as Gingrich continues his self-centered campaign, and expect the attacks to continue to be personal. But Romney had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday night in Tampa, and it would be no surprise to see him back here in seven months to accept the party's nomination at the Republican National Convention.