MIAMI -- Case closed.
Mitt Romney’s lopsided Florida victory over Newt Gingrich -- The Associated Press projected him the winner just after 8 p.m. -- proved the Republican front-runner can win conservatives, triumph in debates and fight a bruising campaign that can lay an opponent to waste.
Romney’s Florida win also showed Republicans he can run the kind of national campaign that can defeat President Barack Obama in November.
“Doing well in Florida,” Romney said Tuesday, “is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally.”
That’s because Florida is more like the nation than any of the other three early states.
North Florida is the Deep South. Southwest Florida is like the Midwest. Latin America meets New York in Southeast Florida. And it all mixes together along the I-4 corridor from Tampa Bay through Central Florida.
Romney excelled in South Florida and among Hispanics, exit polls showed. Early results indicated he might lose North Florida, but he was winning everywhere else by big margins.
“Florida is the nation’s reflecting pool,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004. “It is what New York and Ellis Island used to be, the gateway to the country’s future.”
Before the first ballot was even cast on Election Day, Romney had a cushion of early votes that could have exceeded 60,000. While the other campaigns were silent in early January, Romney advertised on radio and television and aggressively called and mailed early voters, who cast more than 632,000 ballots.
With the big results in from Florida, Castellanos said, the Republican race is almost history, though Gingrich has vowed to fight all the way to the national convention in Tampa this summer.
“This race won’t end tonight, but it will be over,” Castellanos said. “Romney will have done something no other non-incumbent Republican candidate has ever done: He really only lost one of the first four contests. That’s remarkable.”
Technically, Romney lost Iowa, which initially declared him the winner -- only to hand it to Rick Santorum, even though ballots disappeared.
But Santorum has little chance if Florida’s vote is any indication. Same with Ron Paul, who didn’t campaign in Florida so he could go to smaller states with caucuses. All the candidates lack Romney’s money and organization.
On Saturday, Nevada holds its caucus. Romney is expected to win in that state, which has a heavy population of fellow Mormons. Gingrich is already lowering expectations there.
There are also no debates until Feb. 22. Until Florida, Gingrich was viewed as the great debater. But Romney edged him in Florida’s two debates. That had an effect. Two-thirds of voters said the debates made a difference, exit polls showed.
The exit polls suggested Romney, who highlighted foreclosures as a problem, might have won on the issues.
Only 20 percent felt they were getting ahead financially, half described foreclosures as a major community problem and about 60 percent felt the economy mattered most in choosing a candidate.
If Romney can keep communicating that message, he’s sure to do well in Arizona and Michigan, which share Florida’s hard financial times. Another potential edge for Romney: His father was governor of Michigan, and Arizona is home to a large Mormon population and temple. Also, polls suggest Arizona Republicans favor Romney’s hardline immigration stances more than Gingrich’s.
Still, Gingrich is expected to do well in Southern primaries from his home state of Georgia to Tennessee. Just over a week ago, he crushed Romney in South Carolina. However, Gingrich isn’t on the ballots of some states, such as Virginia.
Florida is one of the ultimate prizes for Republicans.
The winner likely gets 50 of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. It also carries outsized importance heading into the general election. Because of the Electoral College, Republicans need to win Florida to balance out likely Democratic victories in New York and California.
Yet, a Florida primary win is no guarantee of general-election victory.
Ask John McCain. He beat Romney in 2008 and had the backing of then-Gov. Charlie Crist. But Obama won by almost 3 percentage points, in part due to a massive ad campaign and the aftershocks of the Bush-era economy on Florida.
A big help for Obama: Gingrich.
If he fights on, Democrats like consultant Screven Watson will be cheering him on.
“I’ll personally contribute money to keep Gingrich in this race,” Watson said. “The question heading into the general election is: What’s the hangover? Are independents believing anything Newt Gingrich is saying? Are some of these negatives on Romney sinking in?”
Watson answered his own question: “I think they are.”
The two leading candidates and the two political action committees supporting them spent more than $19 million on TV advertising alone in Florida. More than 80 percent of it favored Romney.
And a whopping 92 percent of the ads in the last week were negative, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Of all the ads, CMAG told the New York Times, 68 percent cast Gingrich in an unfavorable light, hitting him for his ethics troubles as House Speaker and his consulting work at Freddie Mac, the mortgage institution reviled by many in a state of foreclosures like Florida.
“It is phenomenally negative, phenomenally one-sided in its focus,” said Ken Goldstein CMAG’s president. “Everybody likes to say this is the most-negative race ever. I’m hard pressed to remember when the proportion of advertising has been so negative.”
Goldstein pointed out that negative ad campaigns actually tend to have more accurate and more interesting ads that people inevitably pay attention to.
As he did in Iowa, Gingrich complained in Florida about the negative ads. But Gingrich had his chance at the debates. And he also hit every one of the 10 major media markets in Florida and gave almost-nightly interviews with Fox to get his message out.
“Although Gingrich has borne the brunt of the attacks,” Goldstein said, “he’s certainly had the chance to get his message out.”
But Gingrich’s message changed in Florida from day to day as Romney stayed more focused on his “Obama isn’t working” slogan. Gingrich was unexpectedly scolded by Sen. Marco Rubio for calling Romney “anti-immigrant.”
Not only was Gingrich thrown off message Wednesday, Rubio also vouched for Romney’s conservative bonafides along with former Gov. Jeb Bush, beloved in Florida Republican circles. Neither Rubio nor Bush endorsed any candidate.
Gingrich’s level of frustration was underscored Tuesday when his campaign began robo-calling voters to suggest that Romney was against “religious freedom” and “Holocaust survivors” because in 2003 in Massachusetts he vetoed kosher food money for nursing homes.
Gingrich, who had complained he had been “carpet bombed” by Romney’s camp, on Tuesday initially refused to say whether he approved the phone message. He later disavowed any knowledge of it.
But for all of Gingrich’s complaining, about 34 percent of Republican voters saw his campaign as negative -- only 3 percentage points less than Romney, exit polls showed.
Earlier in the day, Romney brushed off questions about the depth of the negative campaigning.
“When attacked, you have to respond,” he said.
That was the answer of a frontrunner, one who had the money and power to eviscerate his opponent.
In doing so, Romney showed he was as tough as Gingrich, whose performance as a brawler captured hearts in South Carolina.
Unlike South Carolina and the other early vote states, Florida’s primary is decided by Republicans only. Though Florida is the ultimate swing state, its Republican politics are conservative.
Before Florida, Romney could be called a “Republican in Name Only” by critics on the right.
Now, with Florida under his belt, he’s almost the Republican nominee.