At 8 o’clock sharp, when the last polls closed in Florida’s Panhandle, Fox News anchor Bret Baier announced what was widely expected: Mitt Romney had won the Florida primary, and he was projected to do so decisively. At the Newt Gingrich election night party at the Rosen Centre Hotel, only the sound of ice clinking in glasses and bits of small talk could be heard amid the disappointing news being broadcast over the speakers. And after only a few more minutes, the Fox News audio was shut off, and the party began.
The atmosphere here was the near opposite of the bouncing, exciting celebration just ten days earlier in Columbia, South Carolina, where Gingrich rocked the political world with a strong victory in that state’s primary. The cool, open ballroom in Orlando had hardly 400 Gingrich supporters, and members of the national media nearly outnumbered them. The energy of Gingrich’s rallies across Florida this past week, where sometimes thousands showed up to show their support, was noticeably absent. A few more spectators, some of them just hotel guests stopping to see the show, filed in once word got out that Gingrich would speak at 9 o’clock.
Affixed to the small podium from where Gingrich was set to give his concession speech was a sign that read “46 States To Go.” On the four rows of risers on the stage, supporters held up copies of the sign in order to show the national news media, Gingrich’s expressed foe, that their candidate wasn’t going anywhere after defeat in Florida. (Though the signs failed to recognized that Gingrich did not make it on the ballot in Virginia.) A short introduction from former congressman and former state attorney general Bill McColllum, his Florida co-chair, and Gingrich was onstage shortly after the hour.
Gingrich’s speech, which clocked in at just under 15 minutes, echoed the “46 state” theme. “We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee,” Gingrich said, as the newly aroused crowd began a chant of “Newt! Newt! Newt!”
Gingrich failed to mention Romney by name, and only made passing references to his opponent. On Romney’s win in Florida, Gingrich only said that the contest made it “clear” that the race will be “a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.”
Gingrich also took a swipe at both Romney and President Barack Obama’s recent musical forays. “I’m not going to compete with Obama in singing,” Gingrich said. “Because I’m not running for entertainer in chief. I’m running for president.”
But the calculus in reaching the GOP nomination for president shows Gingrich’s path to the presidency just got that much more difficult. Romney leads in the delegate count with 71 (50 picked up from Florida), while Gingrich has 23 from his sole primary win in South Carolina. Another 187 delegates are up for grabs in the next month in Maine, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, and Michigan. If Gingrich hopes to return to Florida in August to accept the nomination, he’ll have to get some big wins before Super Tuesday on March 6.