The Sunshine State’s Republican primary

The result in Florida — the biggest and most diverse primary state so far — has restored the natural Republican political order. Mitt Romney’s strong victory gives him a big boost toward winning the Republican Party presidential nomination. There’s a long way to go until the Republican convention in Tampa, but for the first time, Mr. Romney neared 50 percent of the vote. He has the delegate lead, more money, support from the establishment and political momentum. It is a powerful combination.

Newt Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race. But he has limited opportunities to fight back. He had a hard time competing in media-rich Florida and lacks the money to battle on equal terms as Super Tuesday approaches in early March. Few debates are scheduled in the coming weeks, limiting Gingrich’s opportunity to make up the difference. His best hope remains the lack of enthusiasm for Romney.

Rick Santorum says he still hopes to become the consensus conservative candidate, but his third-place finish effectively ends his campaign. Iowa made him the surprise candidate of the season, but he was unable to broaden his appeal. There simply are too few social conservatives in the Republican Party for him to match Romney and Gingrich across the nation.

Ron Paul did worse than Santorum in Florida, but in truth, he is building a movement, not trying to get elected president. Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota will hold caucuses through next week. Dr. Paul’s passionate following and superior organization might yield more delegates in those contests than Gov. Romney won in Florida.

Romney and Gingrich are both capable men. Gingrich carries significant political baggage, suffers from personal instability and has demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to engage in race-baiting. However, Romney lacks the latter’s energy and creativity. Romney regained the political lead by attacking Gingrich. However, that is an insufficient basis for victory in November.

If Romney has any chance of defeating President Obama, he’ll need to develop a positive agenda to attract Americans unhappy with both political parties as well as those who have been broken by the economy. Ironically, there are messages that both Romney, assuming he is the Republican nominee, and President Obama will have to take to the American people as they seek to lead the nation. Both will have to talk about how to make government smarter, not just smaller. By vigorously supporting school choice, both men could identify with America’s poorest and most disadvantaged families while highlighting their differences with one another. Both will have to reach out to African-Americans, women and immigrants who have not felt welcome in the Republican contest so far, many of whom lack enthusiasm for the Democratic Party.

Momentum in the Republican presidential contest has been swinging wildly. While the race isn’t over, the window available for Gingrich to overtake Romney is closing. Gingrich must win some victories on Super Tuesday, or Romney is going to be able to start focusing on his vice presidential pick and on the general election.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and leads the Bernard Center’s Smart Government Project.

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