It was a big night in Florida for Mitt Romney, who, for the first time since actual voting began, is a clear front-runner with clear skies ahead. Not totally clear, but clearer than any of the candidates has seen so far.
Forty-six percent of the vote is better than just about all the polls were showing, as was his 14-point win over Newt Gingrich. Gingrich’s 32 points plus Rick Santorum’s 13 came up just short of Romney, pouring water on the theory that the former Massachusetts governor was merely the beneficiary of conservative agonistes about which candidate to his right was best to gather behind. From here, Romney is well-positioned to build some momentum in Nevada and three other caucus states, where his vast organization should serve him well (as should Ron Paul’s). Then come primaries in Michigan, his onetime home state, and in Arizona, where he’ll try to capitalize on his endorsement by John McCain. A series of quick victories, albeit without a ton of delegates behind them, would not be surprising.
But here, let’s pause for a word of caution — for surely this unpredictable, rough-and-tumble primary will not settle down so quickly and easily.
There are reasons for Romney to worry, ever so slightly, in the tea leaves from Florida. He was not the choice of the most conservative voters (Gingrich was, narrowly); almost four in 10 voters said they weren’t satisfied with the field of four; and turnout was down by about 250,000, or about 12 percent, from 2008. Those last two points, taken together, suggest Romney’s margin may have benefitted from some voters — some of the most conservative ones? — staying home.
But to whom are conservatives in other states going to turn? Neither Santorum nor Paul has shown an ability to break above the 30 percent mark in a state. Gingrich vowed to fight on, but how many more rises does he have in him, when they always seem to be followed by falls? The idea of a brokered convention won’t die, but at this point it appears more likely to come from the GOP establishment if Romney were to stumble badly than from conservatives who have tried five or six alternatives and found them sorely lacking.
Romney made a pitch for party unity in his speech last night. Now, we’ll almost certainly see an effort from the establishment figures who campaigned hard for him in Florida to bring this race to a close.
– By Kyle Wingfield