Mitt Romney rolled to victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from Newt Gingrich and reclaiming his dominant position as he urged Republicans to rally behind his quest to capture the party’s presidential nomination, reports The New York Times.
Mr Romney, a relative moderate, won about 46 per cent of the vote, according to exit polls. Mr Gingrich, a former House Speaker, received 32 per cent.
The next contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination to face Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 U.S. election is in Nevada, which holds caucuses on Saturday.
That is followed next Tuesday by caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri.
Addressing a victory rally in Tampa, Mr Romney looked beyond the party contest to present America with a choice between him and Mr Obama, in November. “I stand ready to lead this party and lead this nation,” he told supporters. “My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity.”
“President Obama wants to grow government and continue to amass trillion dollar deficits. I will not just slow the growth of government, I will cut it. I will not just freeze government’s share of the total economy, I will reduce it. And without raising taxes, I will finally balance the budget,” he said.
Paraphrasing the political philosopher Thomas Paine’s dictum to “lead, follow or get out of the way”, Mr Romney told Mr Obama: “As president you were elected to lead. You chose to follow. And now it’s time for you to get out of the way”.
Having spent the week – and millions of dollars – aggressively attacking Mr Gingrich for his record in Washington and allowing high-profile political allies to attack him as an “unhinged” and “erratic” character, Mr Romney played peacemaker on Tuesday night, calling on the party to unite to defeat Mr Obama, The Telegraph reports.
“A competitive primary does not divide us,” Mr. Romney told his cheering supporters. “It prepares us. And we will win.”
Mr. Romney defeated Mr. Gingrich by a margin of 14 percentage points, a telling gap that the Romney campaign hoped would be resounding enough to undermine Mr. Gingrich’s ability to be seen as a credible threat. Yet Mr. Gingrich did not see it that way.
He spoke to a crowd in Orlando holding signs reading “46 States to Go,” saying he had a message for those wondering about the future of his presidential bid.
“It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said on Tuesday night, according to Reuters.
“We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we are going to be in Tampa as the nominee in August,” he said. He declined to congratulate Mr Romney on his victory.
Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum, who won in Iowa, came in third in Florida, followed by U.S. congressman Ron Paul.
Mr Gingrich earlier said that Rick Santorum – a fellow conservative who finished a distant third, with 12 per cent – should now step aside, clearing the way for a head-to-head contest between him and Mr Romney.
Mr Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who has rejected those overtures, turned the attack against Mr Gingrich on Tuesday, declaring that the former Speaker should pull out himself.
He is running new commercials in Nevada and Colorado comparing Mr. Gingrich to Mr. Obama.
“In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity,” Mr. Santorum told supporters in Las Vegas. He said, “I’m going to be the conservative alternative, I’m going to be the anti-Mitt,’ and it didn’t work.”