TAMPA, Fla. >> Barreling out of Florida with money and momentum on his side, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said Wednesday that the bare-knuckled nomination fight thus far has toughened him up for contests to come. Chief rival Newt Gingrich is regrouping after a significant loss and faces serious disadvantages in the next states to vote.
Romney, who won big in Florida with a barrage of negative ads, predicted the tone of the GOP campaign was "just a precursor to what you’ll see" from President Barack Obama in the general election. And he said voters paid more attention to what they heard in the campaign debates than whatever ads were flooding the airwaves.
"Perhaps what we’re getting now inoculates us, or at least prepares us, for what will come down the road," Romney said as he made the rounds of morning television shows.
House Speaker John Boehner dismissed any notion that the bitter tone of the GOP race and the prospect of a drawn-out battle for the nomination is worrisome for Republicans.
"I understand that people are concerned about how long the primary process is dragging out," Boehner said. "I would remind people that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a fight that went through June of 2008. I think everybody just needs to realize that this will resolve itself."
Looking ahead, Romney said his campaign is focused squarely on middle-income Americans — to the exclusion of others at either end of the spectrum.
"I’m not concerned about the very poor," Romney said on CNN. "We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who are struggling."
Questioned about his comment on the poor, Romney reiterated that they have "a very ample safety net" but that "we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened."
It didn’t take the Obama campaign long to pounce on Romney’s comments: "So much for ‘we’re all in this together,’" tweeted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
The president’s re-election operation also was looking to make money off the squabbling for the GOP nomination. It issued a fundraising appeal Wednesday focused on the millions that Romney and his supporters had poured into negative ads.
"That’s ugly, and it tells us a lot about what to expect from Romney if he wins the Republican nomination," Messina wrote. "They’re going to try to spend and smear their way to the White House."
Romney said his path ahead "is looking very good" as he heads to Minnesota and Nevada for campaign stops Wednesday. Gingrich, meanwhile, worked to convince supporters that the primary is a two-person race.
Vowing to stay the course, Gingrich said Tuesday, "We are going to contest everyplace." He planned one appearance in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday.
Nevada and Maine have caucuses on Saturday. Minnesota and Colorado hold contests on Tuesday. Michigan and Arizona hold primaries on Feb. 28.
Romney begins February with formidable advantages in fundraising and organization. His campaign raised $24 million in the final months of 2011, dwarfing his competitors and leaving him with $20 million to fight a primary battle that’s increasingly spread across many states.
The former Massachusetts governor has had staff and volunteers on the ground in upcoming states for months as he’s prepared for a drawn-out fight for delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. Gingrich, meanwhile, doesn’t have a strong ground game as he looks to contests in states that could prove problematic for him. And in a nomination fight so far defined by debates — typically a strong point for the former House speaker — he faces a three-week stretch without one. The candidates will next debate in Arizona on Feb. 22.
Romney won Nevada’s caucuses in 2008, and a substantial Mormon population there could propel him to victory. Still, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has been organizing in the state for months and could pose a strong challenge. Romney’s campaign is working to paint the nomination fight as a four-candidate contest, with Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum still in the mix.
A super PAC hoping to help keep Santorum’s candidacy alive announced it would run a TV ad in Missouri arguing he’s the best candidate to put up against Obama.
Romney’s Florida win was a smart rebound from an earlier defeat and represented a major step toward the nomination. He’ll receive Secret Service protection, beginning Wednesday, requested by his campaign.
Romney had 46 percent of the Florida vote to Gingrich’s 32 percent. Santorum had 13 percent and Paul 7 percent; neither mounted a substantial effort in the state.
The winner-take-all primary was worth 50 Republican convention delegates, the most of any primary state so far.
But the bigger prize was precious political momentum.
That momentum belonged to Romney when he captured the New Hampshire primary three weeks ago, then swung stunningly to Gingrich when he countered with a South Carolina upset 11 days later.
Now it is back with Romney, after a change to more aggressive tactics, coupled with an efficient use of an overwhelming financial advantage to batter Gingrich with television commercials.