A little more than a week after losing in South Carolina, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Florida primary with 46 percent of the vote Tuesday, moving him one step closer to the GOP presidential nomination.
The 14-point margin between Romney and runner-up Newt Gingrich will likely reposition the Harvard Law and Business School alumnus as the leading contender for his party’s nomination, Harvard professors said.
“Romney’s going to try to position himself as the presumptive nominee. He’ll probably start to pivot toward the general election,” Institute of Politics Director C. M. “Trey” Grayson ’94 said, adding “I’m hard-pressed to come up with a viable scenario where he won’t win.”
With the next GOP debate not scheduled until Feb. 22 and the next primary not until Arizona’s on Feb. 28, professors said they anticipated little political activity during the lull that could inhibit Romney’s momentum.
In a speech Tuesday night after his victory, Romney focused on attacking the policies of President Barack Obama, a sign that his attention is shifting from the contest for the nomination to the upcoming general election.
“President Obama wants to fundamentally transform America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great,” Romney said.
With the Florida victory under his belt, Romney might employ such targeted rhetoric more often, experts said.
“It was clearly a much more focused, tougher-sounding Romney that was really focused on highlighting the differences between him and Obama,” Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Richard Parker said. “I think this is a narrative that will play [well] with a lot of Americans.”
As of press time, Romney had won 46 percent of the vote in Florida, and Gingrich had garnered almost 32 percent. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul had won 13 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
Tuesday’s primary was the first chance candidates had to test their mettle in a large state.
Florida can send 50 delegates to the Republican national convention in August; of the three contests that preceded Tuesday’s, the largest was in South Carolina, which carries half as many delegates.
Romney’s vast resources and campaign infrastructure gave him a clear advantage in Florida, Harvard professors said.
“It’s advertising, advertising, advertising,” said Pippa Norris II, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. “This is the first...large state, which is very different than the retail politics we had in New Hampshire and the Iowa caucuses.”
According to analysis reported in the New York Times, 92 percent of ads pertaining to the race in Florida were negative.
That negativity fits into a larger trend in Florida in the weeks running up to the primary. After Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, Romney and Gingrich traded blows in debates and in the media, questioning each other’s financial and political records.
Despite expectations earlier this month that Romney would assume the nomination with little difficulty, the path between Iowa and Florida has had its ups and downs, experts said. A different candidate has won each of the previous three contests—Santorum eked out a narrow win in Iowa; Romney took New Hampshire; and Gingrich claimed victory in South Carolina.
—Staff writer Jose A. DelReal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at email@example.com.