Romney Wins Florida but Heads to Nevada Battered and Bruised

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There is now little doubt that he'll be the nominee, but the Sunshine State has serious sullied his brand for the race ahead.

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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.

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.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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