After Primary, Scorched Earth Remains In Fla.

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There wasn't a Democratic primary contest running in parallel with the Republican race in Florida this year. The scorched-earth battle that ensued between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich may have an effect when the general election comes to Florida later this year. Did anyone benefit from the hard-fought primary contest — other than Florida's TV stations, which aired millions of dollars in ads?

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Mitt Romney wasn't the only winner in yesterday's Florida primary. It was also a good day for the state and its Republican leaders, who moved the primary up to fourth place on the election calendar. Florida is being punished for the move, and will lose half its delegates at the August convention.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, state Republican leaders insist the move was worth it - and a good thing for the nominating process.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was a happy and boisterous crowd last night at Casa Marin, a restaurant in Hialeah where Romney's supporters held their victory party.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Romney! Romney! Romney! Rom...

ALLEN: Hialeah City Councilman Paul Hernandez said he was happy for his candidate, but also for Florida.

COUNCILMAN PAUL HERNANDEZ: I think it's excellent for the state. Yeah, we had a penalty, and that's all right. I think that this is going to show the importance of Florida on a national level.

ALLEN: Florida also held an early primary four years ago. The Democratic candidates boycotted the state. Republican candidates bucked the penalties and came anyway. Florida helped seal the nomination for John McCain. This year, Florida may end up filling a similar role for Mitt Romney.

STATE SENATOR MIKE HARIDOPOLOS: Well, you know, all my life I've been jealous of Iowa and New Hampshire.

ALLEN: Mike Haridopolos is Florida's Senate majority leader, and one of the Republicans behind the state's early primary. He says the campaigning and intense media coverage have been great advertising for the state, and brought money and visitors to Florida. And that's not all.

HARIDOPOLOS: For the first time in a long time, Florida voters got a lot of one-on-one time with the person who could be the next president of the United States. So I saw it as a win, win, win, win, win for Florida.

ALLEN: Haridopolos says scheduling Florida's primary early was also good for the Republican Party. It forced the top candidates to compete in a big swing state, one that provides a test similar to what the party's nominee will encounter in the general election. Along with Florida Republicans, another group of winners are commercial TV and radio stations, who saw a windfall in the form of spending on campaign ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in. Gingrich was paid over...

ALLEN: In the last week before the primary, Floridians were subjected to nearly 12,000 TV ads by the campaigns and the superPACs. Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, says of those ads, a full 92 percent were negative - and most targeted Gingrich.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: There were more than seven times as many ads in that last week of the Florida campaign, that were sending out negative messages on Newt Gingrich rather than positive messages on Newt Gingrich. That is an imbalance of information that you really, really don't often see in competitive election campaigns.

ALLEN: All those negative ads clearly took a toll on Gingrich's campaign, helping turn his 12-point win in South Carolina into a 14-point loss in Florida.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who helped direct the 2008 Obama campaign in Florida, says there's evidence the negative ads damaged Mitt Romney as well.

STEVE SCHALE: And I think those are the kind of injuries to campaigns that can be lasting. Certainly if you look at Romney and Gingrich's favorable and unfavorable among independents and swing-voting Democrats, you know, they've dropped a ton in the last week or two. That's not the kind of election that most real voters want to put up with.

ALLEN: Schale see some of those troubles reflected in the number of Republicans who came out yesterday to vote. Nearly 1.7 million Republicans cast ballots. That's about 280,000 fewer than voted in the primary four years ago.

SCHALE: And listen, you know, when voters are turned off by candidates, they don't vote. And I think the fact that the turnout was lower - you know, some 300,000 votes lower than it was four years ago - it's Republicans saying listen, we don't like your field; we don't like the way you're running this campaign; we're not enthusiastic about where things are. And that's a real challenge for Republicans, going forward.

ALLEN: Following Florida's primary, there's now a lull in the campaign season, with no binding primaries until the end of the month. That's four weeks for Florida's primary results to hover over the race for the Republican nomination.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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