Mitt Romney clobbered Newt Gingrich in Florida’s Republican primary vote and moves on to the next state, Nevada, with a fat campaign bankroll and a renewed sense that he is the inevitable challenger to President Barack Obama.
Ten days after Mr Gingrich hammered Mr Romney by a similar margin in South Carolina, one of the most conservative American states, the chaotic Republican nominating contest took another dramatic turn in Florida.
Florida also will be a key battleground in the presidential election later this year as a large and diverse state with a history of backing candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties. Mr Romney and his allies poured roughly $16m into Florida television advertising for the primary alone.
Mr Romney spoke as though he was the presumptive nominee, declaring himself ready “to lead this party and our nation”.
“Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time to get out of the way,” he said.
Mr Obama’s campaign issued a fund-raising appeal focused on the millions that Mr Romney and his supporters have poured into negative ads.
“That’s ugly, and it tells us a lot about what to expect from Romney if he wins the Republican nomination,” said campaign manager Jim Messina. “They’re going to try to spend and smear their way to the White House.”
With Mr Obama vulnerable in his bid for a second White House term because of the slow economic recovery in the United States, about half of Florida primary voters said the most important factor for them was a candidate who could defeat the president, according to exit poll results conducted for the Associated Press news agency and television networks.
Mr Romney, who had failed to draw much above a quarter of the vote in three previous primary and caucus contests in smaller states, won almost half the votes in Florida’s four-person race. That damages Mr Gingrich’s contention that the voters who oppose Mr Romney outnumber those who favour him.
Mr Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, said most states have yet to vote. The sign on his podium read “46 States to go.”
“We are going to contest every place,” he said.
The candidates were converging on Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Saturday. Mr Romney won Nevada after losing in Florida in 2008, and a substantial Mormon population there could propel him to victory again this time.
Mr Romney dropped out of the presidential race four years ago when John McCain became the clear favourite among Republicans. His focus on the economy could play well this time in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the US.
But in talking to CNN yesterday, Mr Romney again made a comment that could make voters wonder whether the millionaire is in touch with average Americans.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 per cent of Americans who are struggling.”
It didn’t take the Mr Obama campaign long to pounce on Mr Romney’s comments: “So much for ‘we’re all in this together,’” said his campaign.