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Newt Gingrich went down railing against the Republican establishment. Republican leaders did prove their ability to win, or at least to beat Gingrich in Florida. Republican money, advertising and harsh remarks from the former speaker's one-time colleagues dragged him down. Mitt Romney captured 46 percent of the vote, winning by 14 points. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were far behind.
Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Romney's victory in Florida was decisive, but it was also expensive and nasty. When he spoke to his supporters in Tampa last night, Romney addressed the tone of the campaign. The Democrats, he said, have been watching.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT 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 CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
LIASSON: Electability has been one of Romney's main arguments. And if his loss to Gingrich in South Carolina poked a hole in that claim, Romney repaired it with his big win in Florida. Exit polls showed that nearly half of Florida Republicans said the ability to win in November was the quality that mattered most to them.
Here's how Joanne Harries of Miami described her decision.
JOANNE HARRIES: They've got to win, and I just thought that Mitt Romney had a better chance to - beating Obama.
LIASSON: In Florida, though, more than anything else, Romney's overwhelming financial advantage helped him win. His campaign and his superPAC buried Gingrich under an avalanche of negative ads, outspending Gingrich by at least 5-to-1. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, Romney had 13,000 ads on Florida TV, while Gingrich had 200. Pollster Andy Kohut said that is the most important lesson of this primary.
ANDY KOHUT: Money matters. Thirty-nine percent of the people that were polled said that advertising mattered to them. Romney won that group by a 52-29 percent margin. Among the other people who said that advertising didn't win, it was a toss up.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Newt. Newt. Newt. Newt.
LIASSON: But Newt Gingrich, despite his double-digit defeat, was far from giving up. With supporters waving signs reading: 46 States to Go, he promised to fight all the way to the convention in Tampa and predicted he would be the nominee.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
NEWT GINGRICH: And you might say: How are we going to do that? Well, the same way that we came back in June and July, and by December we're ahead in the Gallup Poll nationally by 12 or 13 points with no money. It turned out that if you have ideas and you have solutions and you have a history of actually doing something in the past, that the combination begins to reach the American people.
LIASSON: Gingrich said the race is now down to two people: A true conservative and a Massachusetts moderate. The only major voter group Gingrich won yesterday were Republicans who described themselves as very conservative, voters like Jane Hayes, a retired teacher from Milton, Florida.
JANE HAYES: Republicans that are conservative need to get the message to the establishment, that - don't give us weak candidates. You gave us McCain, and he was weak. You gave us Dole, and he was weak. You gave us Romney, and he's weak. And somewhere along the line, we have to stop and say: no more.
LIASSON: But it's hard to see where Gingrich can go in the upcoming round of states for a victory. Nevada and Arizona have big Mormon populations, and Michigan is Romney's home state. Other smaller states hold caucuses in February, but caucuses favor organization of the kind Gingrich lacks.
Also complicating the race are Santorum and Ron Paul, who can hurt Gingrich by dividing the anti-Romney vote.
Still, former Republican strategist Dan Schnur says if Gingrich can't beat Romney, he can keep him busy and distracted.
DAN SCHNUR: And the longer he decides to stay in the race, the more of a potential aggravation and annoyance that is to Romney. Romney will be in a very commanding position. But if Gingrich starts to win primaries come March, when the campaign trail moves to the South, he can make this a competitive primary again. As long as he's still breathing, he's a potential competitor to Romney.
LIASSON: And, Schnur says, Romney has other work to do. He has to repair the damage the primary campaign has done to his image.
SCHNUR: Going through this type of fire in the spring will make him a better and more well-prepared candidate for the fall. The downside is for him is that he's been forced into statements that are going to come back and hurt him in a general election campaign.
LIASSON: Statements about immigration, his taxes and his work at Bain Capital have all caused Romney's favorability ratings to drop, particularly among independent voters. Now Romney has to deal with that, while continuing the fight with Gingrich. But the Romney campaign is hopeful, because in national polls and in key swing states, Romney is still tied with President Obama.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.
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