There is now little doubt that he'll be the nominee, but the Sunshine State has serious sullied his brand for the race ahead.
How much did Mitt Romney lose in winning? There is no doubting the magnitude of his Florida victory on Tuesday night and his alpha-dog status atop the Republican presidential field. But these questions are as unavoidable as they are unpleasant for the presumptive GOP nominee: Will this brutal contest end soon? And will Romney be the weaker for it?
Likely answers: No ... and, Yes.
Florida is a victory with li-Mitts. While Romney now has the GOP nomination virtually wrapped up, he leaves the Sunshine State with a tarnished image and a furious rival, Newt Gingrich, determined to further sully his political brand.
After five weeks of primary and caucus fights, what did voters learn about Romney? On the plus side, he has a successful record as governor of Massachusetts, head of the 2002 Olympic committee, and cofounder of Bain Capital. His stump speech contains a hint of what could be the antidote to President Obama's reelection. "The president's a nice guy, and I know he's trying," Romney says, "but he doesn't understand how the economy works."
Stack that up against what else voters have heard about Romney: He's a liar and a flip-flopper who will say anything to get elected. He's filthy rich. He likes to fire people. He made his fortune plundering companies and laying off workers. Oh, and don't forget that he buried assets in the Cayman Islands and won't cough up his tax returns.
Some of these perceptions come courtesy of his fellow Republicans. Others are self-inflicted.
"He has no idea what it's like out here living paycheck to paycheck," said Christine Roberts, a Des Moines, Iowa, housewife who voted for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.
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She is the type of independent voter who will determine the general election. Roberts, and voters like her, lost faith in Obama early in his presidency and, despite their willingness to vote Republican in November, now harbor doubts about Romney. Doubts that Obama's team are certain to exploit.
According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Romney's negative rating with independents jumped 13 points in the past month and 20 points since November.
Among all voters, 49 percent view him unfavorably, a new high in ABC/Washington Post polling and a 15-point drop in just two weeks. By contrast, 53 percent of voters view Obama favorably, up by 5 points from last month and the highest rating since April 2010. Many more voters say that Obama understands the problems of average Americans than say that about either Romney or Gingrich, the poll shows.
Among noncollege white voters -- a key to the anti-Obama coalition that Romney hopes to forge -- 35 percent view his Bain Capital work favorably, versus 38 percent who view it unfavorably, according to ABC/Post. Among moderates, the numbers are 32 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Romney's allies do not worry about the words of Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, or other GOP rivals being used in Democratic ads this fall. Gingrich, in particular, is so unpopular with independent voters that they would discount his views.
What they worry about is Romney's so-called negative narrative. "First impressions mean everything in politics, and the first thing most voters are learning about Romney is pretty unappetizing," said a GOP strategist and lobbyist who has helped run a presidential campaign. Like other party officials, he spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney's team.
In 2004, President Bush's reelection campaign spent millions of dollars casting Democratic nominee John Kerry as an equivocating politician with no inner core. Much of that work against Romney is already done for Obama.
And it's probably not over.
Even as Florida slipped from Gingrich's grasp, he vowed to fight Romney "all the way to the convention." Indeed, after what is likely to be a fallow February, Gingrich could take aim at a group of Southern and Southwestern states with contests in March and April: Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.
After tonight, just 115 delegates will have been awarded of the 1,144 it takes to clinch the nomination. Romney is only 5 percent there.
Don't buy the spin from his camp that a drawn-out campaign makes for a better general-election candidate. Romney's team likes to point to Obama, who emerged from a long campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the presidency in 2008, but there are two problems with that thinking. First, the Obama-Clinton contest, although brutal, was not as personally negative as Romney-Gingrich. Second, of the five protracted GOP nominating fights in the 20th century, all but one -- which Dwight D. Eisenhower won in 1952 -- led to a Republican defeat.
"The real lesson of 2008 was that what Democrats sometime survive, Republicans rarely do," wrote historians G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young, "It might be a lesson Republicans learn again in 2012."
On paper, February looks good for Romney with contests in Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan. He is particularly strong in Nevada and Arizona, which are home to large numbers of fellow Mormons, and Michigan, where his father was governor in the 1960s. But, unlike winner-take-all Florida, most of those states award their delegates proportionally.
So Romney would need to win by huge landslides to open a significant lead in delegates during February, a tough task given Paul's potential organizational strength in caucus states.
The nuclear scenario: Romney stumbles, Gingrich stalls, and the whole enchilada is up for grabs at the GOP convention. Party leaders in Washington still rate the chances of a brokered convention at 10 to 15 percent, much higher than two months ago but still roughly as low as the prospects of Gingrich winning outright.
Another problem for Romney: He'll need a united and motivated party in November. "While Romney has rocked and rolled [in Florida] and showed he has the stones to win, uniting the party is going to be a challenge," another top GOP official in Washington said. "The notion of a unity dinner in April is out the window."
Just 10 days ago, a victory in Florida seemed a fleeting hope for Romney, after Gingrich humiliated him in South Carolina. And yet he pulled it off, thanks to four developments.
First, establishment Republicans rallied against Gingrich. "Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him, and that fact speaks for itself," 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole wrote. "He was a one-man band who rarely took advice."
Second, Romney delivered two solid, feisty debate performances, overshadowing Gingrich, who had turned earlier debates into campaign rocket fuel.
Third, Romney shifted strategy by turning away from attacking Obama to relentlessly cast Gingrich as an unstable influence-peddler.
Finally, Romney and his allies outspent Gingrich on TV ads by as much as 5-to-1, and 90 percent of those were negative. Even that advantage, however, may work against him in the fall. Remember, the narrative has been written.
Joe Scarborough, a former House member from Florida and the host of MSNBC's influential Morning Joe, told his viewers on Tuesday that Romney will pay a price for today's victory. Come this fall, Scarborough said, Florida voters "are going to turn him off."
Image: Brian Snyder / Reuters