Florida Win Boosts Romney To Front-Runner Status

After a stinging loss to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary earlier this month, Mitt Romney is once again the front-runner in the Republican presidential race. Romney won the Florida primary Tuesday night by beating former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by 14 points.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. For Mitt Romney, last night may not have been a surprise, but it was certainly a relief. After a stinging loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney bounced back in Florida. He beat the former House speaker by 14 points. We'll hear, in a moment, how Gingrich responded.

First, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Tampa on Romney's very big night.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...8, 7, 6, 5, 4...

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is not the countdown to New Year's. It's the countdown to 8 p.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: In the Tampa Convention Center ballroom, the clock struck the hour, Florida's last polling places closed, and the results flashed up on the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Ten days after a devastating defeat that threw doubt on his front-runner status, Mitt Romney pole-vaulted back into the picture and looked stronger than ever. It was an important victory, not only because Florida is the biggest state to vote so far - with more Republican voters than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined - but also because Romney's only other win so far was in New Hampshire. That state is in his backyard. Romney owns a home there, and he's campaigned there almost nonstop for years.

After Rick Santorum squeaked out an Iowa victory and Newt Gingrich roared to the top in South Carolina, the former Massachusetts governor needed to do everything in his power to win Florida. And that is just what he did.

MITT ROMNEY: (Talking on phone) Robert, it's Mitt Romney. How are you? Good. Hey, I need your vote today. Have you been out to vote yet?

SHAPIRO: Making calls from his campaign headquarters in Tampa yesterday morning probably did not have any real impact on the race. Still, as Romney said to an independent voter on the phone, every minute he spent campaigning here also laid the groundwork for a fight with President Obama in the fall.

ROMNEY: (Talking on phone) Next time, I'll need you to vote as a Republican. But this coming November, if I'm lucky, I'll be the nominee and then I'll get - I want you to get out and vote, and vote for me in the general election. Will you do that?

SHAPIRO: Romney told reporters he would have liked to have focused more on President Obama as he pinballed around the state. But Gingrich made sure that was not an option, putting the heat on Romney as never before.

ROMNEY: If you're attacked, I'm not going to just sit back. I'm going to fight back - and fight back hard.

SHAPIRO: The presidential campaign was negative through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But Florida took the attacks to a whole new level. The Romney campaign smashed the piggy bank and flooded the airwaves with attack ads, outspending Gingrich by about five to one.

Tom Lee is a Romney campaign co-chair in Florida.

TOM LEE: It's an expensive place to run. You've got to have a ground game; you've got to be well-organized; and you've got to be able to spend a million dollars a week to get a thousand rating points in these expensive media markets. And I knew Governor Romney was the only one that had organized well enough early, to prepare himself for a battleground like Florida.

SHAPIRO: The intense negativity took a toll on the former Massachusetts governor. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that Romney's favorability rating among independents has dropped from a high in the mid-40s last fall to just 23 percent today. Exit polls in Florida found that a plurality believed his campaign had been the most unfair. At the same time, the sharp attacks on Romney by Gingrich may have tilled the soil for Democrats in the fall.

LEE: In his victory speech in Tampa last night, Romney said that's what the other party wants you to think.

ROMNEY: They like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak. But I've got news for them. A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us. And we will win.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: He looked ahead to August, when his party will return here and formally name its nominee.

ROMNEY: And when we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now, for our convention, ours...

(SOUNDBITEOF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: ...ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: That's the kind of talk that Jerry Mistretta likes to hear. He owns Jerry's Cajun Cafe in Pensacola.

JERRY MISTRETTA: I hate the negativity. They should be focusing on what needs to be done with this country and what Obama's not doing - and focus on that, not on beating up each other.

SHAPIRO: All in due time. Today, Romney flies west, stopping in Minnesota on his way to Nevada, where voters will caucus on Saturday, giving Romney a chance to build on what has been his best week yet.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Tampa, Florida.

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