Mitt Romney, reclaiming his front- runner status in the Republican presidential race after a 14- point win in Florida yesterday, assailed rival Newt Gingrich as not a “pure conservative” as he prepared for a potentially protracted contest with the former U.S. House speaker.
The former governor said Gingrich -- who has branded Romney a “Massachusetts moderate” in efforts to stoke resistance to his candidacy among the Republican base -- had himself strayed from core party principles by advocating action to curb climate change, criticizing a Republican-authored Medicare plan, and backing a national mandate to purchase health care.
“I’m not saying he’s not conservative; I’m just saying he’s not the pure conservative he would have people believe,” Romney told reporters on board his campaign plane today as he flew from Tampa, Florida to Minneapolis, where he’s holding a rally in advance of Minnesota’s Feb. 7 caucuses.
Asked whether Gingrich -- whom his campaign and supporters attacked in Florida with a multimillion-dollar advertising offensive that swamped the ad spending on behalf of his rival -- could ultimately end up hurting the Republican Party in the primary contest, Romney said, “You know, I hope not.”
Blow to Gingrich
Romney’s win in Florida -- the most populous and diverse state to weigh in so far in the Republican race -- earned him 50 delegates and dealt a blow to Gingrich after the former speaker had triumphed in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary. Gingrich, the second-place finisher in Florida, vowed to press on. So did former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who ran third in Florida, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who finished fourth.
Florida’s results made Romney the first candidate to win more than one nominating contest in this year’s Republican race. He will receive U.S. Secret Service protection this week as he campaigns, according to an adviser who requested anonymity.
He finished first by 16 percentage points in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary, then slipped to second in South Carolina. Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa in a recount after state party officials originally said Romney won the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.
The campaign in Florida was the nastiest so far, with 91 percent of all television ads aired in the state over the final week classified as negative by Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York- based firm that tracks the commercials. Romney and his allies pounded Gingrich with TV ads that criticized his record and character, outspending him more than 6 to 1, according to CMAG.
In commercials and on the campaign trail, Romney spotlighted Gingrich’s 1997 House ethics reprimand and his consulting work for Freddie Mac, the federally backed home- mortgage company. Freddie Mac is unpopular in Florida, where 23 percent of all mortgaged homes are delinquent or in foreclosure, the most in the nation, according to Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services.
Romney and his supporters spent $13.3 million on broadcast ads in Florida as of Jan. 30, compared with $2.5 million in advertising time bought by Gingrich and his backers, CMAG found.
Gingrich, 68, casting his candidacy in populist terms, has charged that Romney was dishonest and beholden to Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers who benefited from government bailouts.
Romney, 64, pushed back today on questions about whether he is out of touch with ordinary people after remarking to CNN in an interview that “I’m not concerned about poor people.”
He told reporters aboard on his campaign plane that his comment had been taken out of context.
“No, no, no, no,” Romney protested when asked about his statement. “I’ve said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle- income people, all right?” He said poor people have an “ample safety net,” including Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“If there are people that are falling through the cracks, I want to fix that. Wealthy people are doing fine. But my focus in the campaign is on middle-income people,” Romney said.
Helping Romney rebound in Florida were his aggressive attacks on Gingrich in two televised debates preceding yesterday’s vote. Romney said his performances -- delivered under the tutelage of recently hired debate coach Brett O’Donnell -- had “overwhelmingly the biggest impact” on the outcome in Florida.
Romney won 46 percent of the vote in Florida with 100 percent of precincts counted, according to the Associated Press tally. Gingrich had 32 percent, followed by Santorum with 13 percent and Paul with 7 percent.
Gingrich said the results so far had made it “clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.”
“We are going to contest every place,” he told about 200 people in a hotel ballroom in Orlando last night.
Santorum, after a weekend break from campaigning to care for a sick daughter in Pennsylvania, had begun to focus on other states before yesterday’s vote.
Speaking to a crowd last night from Las Vegas, Santorum offered himself as the candidate best able to “draw a clear contrast with President Obama.”
Paul, who invested little effort in Florida, is concentrating on gathering delegates from caucus states where it is cheaper to campaign. He spent yesterday campaigning in Colorado and Nevada, where he drew more than 1,000 people to a rally last night in Henderson.
“We’ve only gotten started,” he told his supporters. An “irate, tireless minority” does well in caucus states, he said.
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