S.C. Momentum Doesn't Help Gingrich In Florida

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Newt Gingrich had hoped that his win in the South Carolina primary earlier this month would give him momentum going into Tuesday's nominating contest in Florida. But it didn't. He lost to Mitt Romney by 14 points.


Newt Gingrich was hoping his big win in South Carolina not so long ago would inspire an even bigger win in Florida. What followed instead was a brutal wave of negative campaigning. Romney suffered. Nationwide the percentage of voters with a favorable view of Romney dropped, but Gingrich was crushed in the actual voting.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports on the candidate's final day in Florida and his effort to find a road ahead.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich spent primary day riding his campaign bus from Orlando to Lakeland, to Plant City to Celebration and back to Orlando, looking for some magic in the land of the Magic Kingdom. But as supporters gathered for his election night party, it was clear there would be no late surge - not even a closer than expected finish. They watched the giant TV screens in the ballroom as Fox News anchors called the race for Mitt Romney the instant the last polls closed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...can project that Mitt Romney will (unintelligible)...

GONYEA: The crowd reaction was muted. No one was surprised, including 85-year-old retired military officer Tony Ortner.

TONY ORTNER: It was pretty obvious, don't you think?

GONYEA: He was there with his daughter, Deanna Ortner, who wore a Gingrich 2012 button on the lapel of her jacket.

DEANNA ORTNER: It's disappointing. I had hoped that he was building some momentum, and unfortunately I don't think his ground game got off the ground soon enough.

GONYEA: A little over an hour later, the candidate entered the room.

NEWT GINGRICH: Thank you all very, very much.

GONYEA: But if this was a concession speech, it was like no other. The candidate was conceding nothing. No mention of a phone call to congratulate Mitt Romney. No mention, in fact, of Mitt Romney.

GINGRICH: And I think Florida did something very important coming on top of South Carolina. It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.


GONYEA: So Gingrich found a kind of victory in a race where he got one in vote in three and where he'd lost by some 14 points. The speech was different from those he's given over the past few weeks. It did not include a direct attack on Romney. Instead, Gingrich looked ahead to his own first day in the White House as if it were now assured. He detailed some of the immediate changes he would bring and he tore into the incumbent.

GINGRICH: If Barack Obama gets reelected, it will be a disaster for the United States of America. Make no bones about it. If he can have a record this bad, unemployment this bad, deficits this bad, policies this bad, gasoline prices this high and still get reelected, you can't imagine how radical he'll be in his second term.

GONYEA: One more thing: Gingrich had a message for anyone who might think it's time for him to get out of the race after losing three of the first four states. On stage in front of him was a new sign that read 46 states to go. It makes a point, even if Gingrich is not on the ballot in all of those coming contests. Surely in the crowd there was no readiness to declare Mitt Romney the winner. Gingrich backer Andrea Shea King hosts an Internet radio show. She says she wished the Florida campaign had been less negative and that Gingrich would have focused more on President Obama.

ANDREA SHEA KING: Is this a step back? Yes, it is. He should have come out with that message sooner. He should have spent less time criticizing Romney and more time putting out his positive message. Because when he does that, it galvanizes people.

GONYEA: Tony and Deanna Ortner, the father and daughter we met earlier, put it this way...

DEANA ORTNER: I hope he perseveres. I hope he continues. I'd like to see him stick it out to the convention.

GONYEA: The sign on the podium says 46 states to go.

ORTNER: Right. And that's going to be a long haul.

GONYEA: In the weeks ahead, it will be up to the voters to determine just how long a haul it is. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Orlando.

INSKEEP: Here's one more data point from the Florida primary: Republican voter turnout dropped compared with the primary in 2008. Fewer than 1.7 million Floridians voted - down a quarter million from last time. Republican voter turnout has been mixed in 2012. It was heavy in South Carolina. Turn-out was up in Iowa and New Hampshire, but mainly because a lot of non-Republicans chose to vote. Take all the states together and turn-out so far is a little down. Turnout is one of many factors analysts will watch as they try to guess the enthusiasm the party will show this fall.

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