It was a great night for Mitt Romney, restoring the former Massachusetts governor's lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Storming from behind after his crashing fall in South Carolina 10 days earlier, Romney overtook rival Newt Gingrich and passed him in the course of a week. In the end, he won the far larger and more pivotal state of Florida by the same margin he had lost by in South Carolina.
He did it in two ways, both depending on the power of TV in a state too large for retail campaigning.
First, he unleashed a TV blitz of attack ads valued at north of $15 million. Second, he adopted a new and well-coached persona in two TV debates in the week between South Carolina and Florida. Both moves proved amazingly effective in the tight time frame of a single week.
The ads overwhelmed the Gingrich campaign, swamping its late effort to get on the air by a ratio of 5-to-1. Moreover, the revitalized Romney who showed up in Tampa and Jacksonville ready to rumble neutralized the one weapon the former House speaker had relied on most — his bravura performance in TV debates.
Gingrich will not have another debate in which to reverse that dynamic for three weeks. And there is not another voting event, either primary or caucus, that offers him much hope of a turnaround in the next four weeks.
His best chance for a good showing in February might have been the nonbinding primary in Missouri on the 7th. But Gingrich's campaign failed to qualify him for the ballot there. So Gingrich may be without another win going into the Arizona-Michigan tandem on Feb. 28. Arizona is a state with many Mormons, and Michigan is one of Romney's "home" states, where his father was a popular governor.
Still, it was not all sweetness and light for Romney in the Sunshine State. The party largely came together behind him, but largely because the tsunami of attack ads had hammered Gingrich beyond recognition. And with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul unable to begin competing financially, Florida was Mitt's almost by default.
Clearly, no one in this field commanded the kind of enthusiasm Republicans might have expected to see in a state where they won every competitive race in sight in 2010. The fact that Gingrich had spiked briefly into the lead after South Carolina showed how hungry conservatives were for a champion.
Lacking a hero, many of the state's conservatives may have stayed home. Turnout this year was down substantially from the primary of 2008, from about 51 percent of the state's GOP voters to about 41 percent. That was a decline of more than 280,000 votes — despite an increase in Republican registration in 2010.
One might say that the 2008 field had more magnetic personalities, including the winner, John McCain, Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, actor-politician Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a man with many former constituents among the Florida population. The 2008 field also included earlier incarnations of candidates Romney and Ron Paul.
So perhaps the pre-winnowed field of 2012 left some of the party faithful feeling uninspired. Or perhaps the sheer negativity of the campaign reduced turnout, as nasty campaigns often do. It is worth noting that exit polls showed that a slight plurality of the voters in this primary thought Romney's campaign had been the most unfair. And Gingrich spent the last few days before the primary complaining about it.
Any accusation of dirty pool may seem ironic coming from the often acerbic and aggressive former House speaker. But it is a characterization that will likely follow Romney through the rest of the nominating season. And it will be one of the gifts this battle bestows on the president's re-election prospects.
The Romney camp will need to examine the Florida results with a cold eye on the day after their victory party. Performance in the primary, weak or strong, can be a precursor to performance in the fall. Since 2000, there has been no state more critical to presidential election results than Florida.