Romney in speech tells supporters the election is about 'saving the soul of America'

Mitt Romney’s significant victory Tuesday night in the key battleground state of Florida fortified his position as the front-runner for the Republican nomination and he wasted no time taking the fight directly to President Barack Obama.

“This campaign is about more than replacing a president, it’s about saving the soul of America,” Romney said. “Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses. I stand ready to lead this party and this nation. My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity,” Romney said.

The former Massachusetts governor spoke to a crowded room of supporters less than an hour after the last polls closed in the state’s panhandle, and said his vision of America is to strengthen the economy and embolden the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“The president’s view of a free economy is to send your money to his friends,” Romney said. “Under this president, more Americans have lost their jobs and more foreclosures have occurred than any other president in history.”

“The president actually said in his State of the Union speech, let’s remember how we got here. Don’t worry Mr. President, we remember exactly how we got here, you won the election,” Romney said.

“You were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now Mr. President, it’s time for you to get out of the way,” Romney said.

With 98 percent of the polls reporting, Romney won the race with 46 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 32 percent, former Sen. Rick Santorum with 13 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul with seven percent.

“If enthusiasm wins elections, we would win hands down,” Paul told his supporters. “We’re in third place when it comes to delegates, that’s what really counts.”

Romney’s success in Florida plus his win in New Hampshire and second-place finishes in Iowa and South Carolina bring his total number of delegates to 87, followed by Gingrich with 26, 14 for Santorum and four for Paul. The Republican candidate will need 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.

The double-digit win for Romney over Gingrich followed a hotly contested campaign and a barrage of negative television ads prompting some Republicans to express fears it could damage the eventual nominee when he faces Obama in the general election.

“A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win,” Romney said. When the Republican convention gets underway in August, “ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.”

However, Santorum warned that the race has turned “pretty nasty” among the Republican contenders and “went downhill” when it reached the Florida contest.

“The American public does not want to see two or three candidates get into a mud wrestling match where everyone walks away dirty,” Santorum told his supporters gathered already in Nevada for the next election fight on Saturday.

“It’s not something that is going to help us win the election,” Santorum said. “We need to put those issues behind us and focus on the real issue of beating Barack Obama. We’re not going to do that by mudslinging, but talking about the issues people are sitting around their kitchen table talking about.”

In past contests, Florida held its primary in March but moved up the race this year to January and may become the tiebreaker in a drawn-out primary that has seen several candidates take the front-runner status.

“The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R. –FL) told CNN before the polls closed.

The primaries kicked off as a spirited but congenial contest beginning early last month in Iowa, and Gingrich set the example in earlier debates for running a civil campaign often siding with his opponents to the consternation of media moderators and focusing his attacks on President Obama’s policies.

But that civility turned to frustration in the Florida debates as Gingrich started slipping in the polls, due in large part to a barrage of attacks that questioned his loyalty to former President Ronald Reagan and his conservative credentials.

“I don’t know how you debate a person … being civil, when he stands there and just blatantly doesn’t tell the truth,” the former House Speaker said of Romney after the debates.

According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a record 92 percent of television ads in the Florida primary were negative—that’s a total of 11,586 ads that ran between Jan. 23 and Jan. 29, and only 953 were positive.

Even the Drudge Report was accused of launching a coordinated attack on the Gingrich campaign for reposting the top election headlines last week which were overwhelmingly negative reports from the field.

Romney’s campaign and PAC supporters spent an astonishing $14 million in television advertising for the Florida primary alone, the Associated Press reported, giving him a clear advantage. Comparatively, Gingrich and his factions spent more than $3 million in television advertising that criticized Romney for his stance on illegal immigration, health care and tax increases.

Gingrich called his loss an “onslaught” of 5-1 spending, but promised his supporters he would press ahead with his campaign.

“Florida did something very important, it is now clear this will be a two person race between conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate. The voters of Florida really made that clear,” Gingrich said.

“We are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August,” Gingrich said.

“This is the most important election of your lifetime. If Barack Obama gets reelected, it will be a disaster for the United States of America, make no bones about it,” Gingrich said.