The Florida primary: Romney wins early, with his 'boot on Gingrich's neck'

By 8 p.m., the Florida primary victory had been called for Mitt Romney by all the news networks. Before the 9 p.m. hour, a shift could be discerned in Romney’s speech: Instead of trying to distinguish himself from the Republican pack of candidates, he looked frequently straight into the TV camera and addressed not merely his cheering campaign staffers, or the state of Florida, but the entire country. And his message to us all was to quote Thomas Paine and then go after the other party: “‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you followed, and now it’s time to get out of the way.”

Gingrich, who came in second, went pop-culture on his followers. Reminding them of President Obama’s recent crooning of a snatch of Al Green soul, Gingrich said, “I’m not running as entertainer in chief; I’m running for commander in chief … Mr. President, you cannot sing your way past the disaster of your presidency.”

Watching CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, one theme was repeated: Romney had expanded his lead in Florida with an aggressive debate performance and, especially, a barrage of fiercely negative ads criticizing Gingrich — Romney’s campaign was determined to forestall a last-minute Newt surge. Going forward, all the pundits agreed, Romney now has to calibrate how much he dials back on the Newt-gativity, or decide — to use Fox News’ Brit Hume’s pungent phrase — “whether he has to keep his boot on Gingrich’s neck.”

Speaking of Gingrich’s neck, the candidate stuck his out, asserting in his concession speech that “we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.” Gingrich said, “Florida has made it clear that this will be a two-man race between the conservative, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts Moderate [i.e., Romney].”

Gingrich was just getting started. He tossed off a firecracker about Obama — “You can’t imagine how radical he’ll be in his second term” — before starting a long recitation of things he’ll do “about two hours after the inaugural address.” Gingrich said that, among other things, he will instantly “abolish all the ‘czars’ in government”; he will “sign an executive order guaranteeing…no U.S. money will go to pay for abortion…I will sign an order repealing every antireligious act of the Obama administration.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews called these assertions “delusional.”

The Florida losers were not as eager as Romney to let go of the Republican attack rhetoric. Third-place Rick Santorum, speaking from Las Vegas, said, “Tomorrow we’re gonna give a speech about Romneycare and Obamacare.” Of Gingrich, Santorum said in a Fox News interview shortly after Romney’s acceptance speech that Newt’s past hasĀ  become “baggage” that “conservatives don’t need.”

And so, onward, with the news media on warning. Gingrich said yesterday that “as your nominee, I will not accept debates in the fall in which reporters are the moderators… We don’t need a second Obama person in the debate.”

It’s almost enough to make you want Gingrich to go all the way to the Republican party nomination. What non-reporter will he sign off on as debate moderator? Paula Abdul is now available…

Twitter: @kentucker

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