Florida Cements Mitt Romney's Front-Runner Status (The Note)

(Image Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

TAMPA, Fla. - After days of relentless attacks on rival Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney used his victory speech in Florida last night to once again re-focus the race as one between him and President Obama.

"My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity," Romney told a crowd of 2,000 supporters in Tampa.

And in a nod to the vitriol of the final 10-day march to the Florida primary, he noted: "A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us. And we will win."

He mentioned his rivals only in positive terms: "Three gentleman are serious and able competitors and they're still in the race."

But 80 miles away along Florida's vote-rich I-4 corridor, Gingrich offered a very different message speaking in front of a sign that read "46 States To Go."

"We are going to contest every place, and we will win," Gingrich said striking a tone of defiance after the night's returns showed him losing by a 14 percentage point margin to Romney in the Sunshine State.

The fact is, "46 States To Go" isn't a message, it's a war cry. And that, in a nutshell, sums up the Gingrich campaign.

Every time Gingrich has had a chance to define and dominate this race, he found a way to blow it. The past week in Florida was a case-in-point.

The former House speaker benefited from several great debate performances in South Carolina and elsewhere only to be followed by poor showings in Florida. His crisp message was replaced by a convoluted one (think moon colonies).

More important, the results of Florida highlighted Gingrich's lack of basic campaign organization and structure. Romney's win in Florida wasn't just about the ad barrage. It was also thanks to good old fashioned field work, specifically a hugely successful absentee and early vote effort. (More on Romney's lean, mean Florida war room:  http://abcn.ws/ya6lhH)

Romney campaign insiders say that they will keep the pressure on Gingrich, but last night's win in Florida gives the candidate some leeway to return to an anti-Obama message rather than one that requires him to do battle every day with his Republican opponents.

"Stay big, stay above it all," is the approach that one Romney confidante said would be the goal heading into February primaries and caucuses. But, unlike Florida's winner-take-all primary, that strategy will come face to face with the three other candidates who intend to spend the coming weeks engaged in a scrappy fight for every last delegate.

In case you missed it, here's the Florida primary in 60 seconds, brought to you by ABC News' Political Director Amy Walter. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/AhAXNF

And ABC's David Muir reported for "Good Morning America" on the ingredients that went into Romney's win in the Sunshine State. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/Amf3bM

ROMNEY TALKS OF LESSONS LEARNED. On "Good Morning America" today,  Romney said he learned a few lessons that helped him turn a  devastating loss in South Carolina into a  decisive victory in Florida. "What I learned about myself is when things get tough you put your head down, you work very hard, you do the job necessary to get your message out there and, if you succeed so much the better," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. Romney didn't pay attention to the ups and downs of his campaign, he said, adding that it's "not the end of the world" if people don't support him. "I have a good life with my family and my wife.  I don't have to win, I just want to win and I want to win because I care about my country," he said. The former Massachusetts governor credited his Sunshine state win to  last week's debate performances and the distinctions between him and  Newt Gingrich. "It was a chance to see both of us, to talk about our respective visions for the future, the country, and fortunately I was able to connect with the people here and get the kind of support I needed," he said. "I understand that I was able to get more votes here in Florida than has ever been accomplished here before, so I'm feeling pretty good this morning."  http://abcn.ws/w5ZHh6

JON KARL'S BOTTOM LINE: ABC's Jonathan Karl points out the one thing you need to know about the Florida campaign: amidst the blizzard of campaign ads there was only one positive pro-Romney ad - a single Spanish language TV ad. That's right. Mitt Romney and his allies spent more than $15 million on TV ads - only one was positive and it was in a foreign language.  It ran a total of 15 times statewide. Ninety-two percent of the political ads run this past week in the Sunshine State were negative. Less than 0.1 percent of the ads in Florida were positive Romney ads. That is the statistic of the campaign. Mitt Romney and his allies ran a purely negative television campaign and it worked.

THE BIG QUESTION: CAN MITT MAINTAIN THE 'MO? Romney's win in Florida puts wind in the former Massachusetts governor's sails. But will it be enough to float him toward a speedy wrap up of the nomination? ABC's "Top Line" team says… not so fast. Yahoo! News bureau chief David Chalian explains that Romney must stay on offense in order to ensure that Gingrich does not come back to life. ABC's Rick Klein points out that the states coming next include some familiar territory for Romney. Of the next six states to choose delegates, Romney won five of them in 2008 - when he lost the nomination. And Amy Walter points out that what was key for Romney in Florida will remain key in future contests: organization. The well-organized Romney campaign targeted Florida's early and absentee voters and the Florida exit poll showed a whopping 42% of Florida voters said they decided on their candidate before last month. http://abcn.ws/wB7JdM


FROM TEAM OBAMA: Romney may have regained momentum and earned an air of electability following his victory in Florida, but a top Obama strategist says the tactics and message Romney displayed won't fly in a national campaign, ABC's Devin Dwyer reports. "Team Romney wants voters and the national media to believe its victory reflects its candidate's positions," deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter wrote in a memo to reporters Wednesday. "In reality, it is a product of the fact that Romney and his SuperPAC allies carpet-bombed Gingrich by spending five times as much money on Florida's airwaves, and running more than 60 television ads for every one Gingrich and his allies aired," she said. Romney and affiliated outside groups did spend more than $15 million on TV ads, according to Kantar Media's CMAG, which closely tracks campaign spending. Most were negative attacks against rival candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. The group reported that less than 0.1 percent of political ads that aired in Florida over the past week were positive Romney ads, while more than 68 percent were attack ads against Gingrich. "It's difficult for Romney to claim Floridians voted for him rather than against his opponents," Cutter concluded.

FROM TEAM ROMNEY: "It's no wonder that with Gov. Romney coming off a big victory in a must-win general election state that the White House would be worried about having to face Gov. Romney and be held accountable for President Obama's failures," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement this morning. "Our opponents would love for you to believe that we have out-spent our rivals 5 to 1, but, per usual, the facts are not on their side. In SC, those gunning for us spent over $7 million while we and allies of Gov. Romney spent a combined $4 million."


A CHANGED CAMPAIGN: ROMNEY TO RECEIVE SECRET SERVICE PROTECTION.  Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has been informed that it will start receiving Secret Service protection this week, two campaign sources and a senior Republican tell ABC News' John Berman and Emily Friedman. Secret Service protection is being given to the campaign not because of a specific threat but because of the increase in crowd sizes as the primary season has progressed over the past few weeks, according to the sources, who refused to be identified because they don't have authority to comment on such matters publicly. According to a federal law enforcement officials Romney's campaign, which has long traveled with private security of its own, did request Secret Service protection. However sources tell ABC that the campaign did not make the request, but was approached about the additional security steps in the weeks following the New Hampshire primary. Such decisions are made by the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with congressional leadership. Officials with the campaign and the Secret Service declined to comment on the decision. Romney will become the only current Republican candidate with Secret Service protection. Herman Cain became the first candidate to receive Service protection, in November, but he ended his candidacy in December. http://abcn.ws/A4Abzi

SANTORUM TO LAUNCH RADIO ATTACK ADS. ABC News' Shushannah Walshe reports: The Santorum campaign is out with a new radio ad attacking Newt Gingrich. The negative ad says Gingrich is not a "true conservative" and that is why he lost Tuesday evening to Mitt Romney in the Florida primary. "The Florida results are in, and despite spending millions, Newt Gingrich went from a big lead to a big defeat. Why? Because voters discovered Gingrich wasn't a true conservative," the voice over reads. The Santorum campaign says it is a "saturated buy" and it will air nationwide, as opposed to in local markets, through next Tuesday's caucuses on Fox News satellite radio and other conservative radio channels. The campaign did not provide details on how much was spent. The ad hits Gingrich on "support[ing] the Wall Street bailouts, job-killing cap and trade … and radical healthcare mandates" and says the candidate "even supports giving some illegals amnesty." http://abcn.ws/wQh2F8

RON PAUL SAYS HE'S JUST GETTING STARTED. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul didn't campaign in Florida, run a single ad in the state, or hire a single staffer there. So, as ABC's Jason Volack notes, it was only fitting that the Texas congressman spent primary day on the other side of the country stumping for votes in Colorado and Nevada. "We've been having a fantastic trip," said Paul to an energetic crowd in Henderson, Nevada. Just before appearing on stage, Paul called Mitt Romney and congratulated him on his big Florida win. "He ran a good campaign, but I also said I'd see him soon in the caucus states," said Paul. Paul skipped Florida's winner-take-all primary in favor of caucus states where superior organization and passionate supporters play to his strengths. The congressman acknowledged that his "tireless minority" who "believe in something" will be a force in the upcoming caucuses in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Nevada. http://abcn.ws/xKSNsq

THE SUPER PAC REPORT: WHO'S RAISING, WHO'S FALLING BEHIND? ABC's Matt Negrin crunches the numbers: Mitt Romney isn't just beating his rivals in the number of delegates he needs to win the nomination. He's also creaming them in the financial support the candidates have from the so-called super PACs. Hours before the deadline to report their financial standings, the super PACs supporting every candidate detailed how much money they raised in 2011 and how much they spent. The PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, raised almost $18 million between July and December, and as of Tuesday had spent more than $17 million.  At the end of the reporting period, Restore Our Future had more than $23 million cash on hand. The group supporting Romney's main Republican rival, Newt Gingrich, reported raising just over $2 million, though that doesn't include a $10 million donation in January from Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino tycoon, and his wife. That super PAC, Winning Our Future, has so far spent almost $9 million. Winning Our Future was created in the middle of December, and the $2 million it reported raising came in just more than two weeks. http://abcn.ws/wz2ouB


@globeglen : MITT ROMNEY: 'Political Intelligence' Florida primary analysis; Romney pivots to general election mode…  bo.st/zYCPle #2012

@jeffzeleny : Our video take on Florida and the search for GOP unity. nyti.ms/zBjUxP

@RalstonFlash : NV progressive group welcomes Romney today with new website highlighting foreclosures in nation's hardest hit state:  bit.ly/A27oqZ

@swheaton : From Howard Hughes to Adelsons: history of big money in NV presidential politics by  @AnjeanetteDamon of LV Sun  ow.ly/8NVfE

@OKnox : RT  @DavidChalian Big day at Yahoo! News.  @OKnox joins the team as our 1st White House correspondent.  yhoo.it/w4LifT // thrilled!


- Mitt Romney will hold grassroots rallies in Eagan, Minnesota and Las Vegas, Nevada.

- Newt Gingrich will attend an afternoon campaign rally in Reno, Nevada.

- Ron Paul will hold various events and media interviews in Las Vegas, Nevada

- Rick Santorum will return to Colorado, with stops in Denver, Lakewood, Woodland Park and Colorado Springs.

-ABC's Joanna Suarez

Check out The Note's Futures Calendar:  http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV


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