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Romney's in the driver's seat

By Edward Morrissey, Special to CNN
updated 6:18 AM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
Florida primary winner Mitt Romney and his wife Ann greet supporters in the Tampa Convention Center.
Florida primary winner Mitt Romney and his wife Ann greet supporters in the Tampa Convention Center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ed Morrissey says Mitt Romney snatched victory back from Gingrich in Florida primary
  • He says Gingrich lost ground after poor debate turns in state; Romney prepared, effective
  • He says it's not over yet, but gets tougher now, with upcoming primaries stacked up
  • Morrissey: Romney's money dominance gives him big edge over Gingrich in parallel contests

Editor's note: Edward Morrissey is a senior editor and correspondent for the conservative commentary website HotAir.com.

(CNN) -- Ten days ago, Mitt Romney took a body blow from Newt Gingrich in losing South Carolina by twelve points in an open primary. Tuesday night, he evened the score with his own double-digit win in the cycle's first closed primary.

How did Romney bounce back? Coming into Florida, Gingrich had taken a lead in both national and state polling, thanks to his landslide victory and two earlier debates in which he attacked the media and fired up voters. That formula failed Gingrich in two Florida debates; he tried to attack NBC for keeping the crowd quiet at the first of them, and then chastised Wolf Blitzer in the second for his question about a criticism that Gingrich himself had made about Romney on the campaign trail.

But they weren't effective: Gingrich wasn't able to get the momentum those kinds of attacks had produced the week before.

Romney to Obama: Get out of the way
Romney: Primary contests aren't easy
Gingrich and Romney go after Obama

In contrast, Romney prepared much better for these debates. He found lines of attack against Gingrich that obviously stung, and exploited them. In the South Carolina debates, Romney had tried to avoid confrontation, but in Florida he actively attacked. That paid off handsomely among the stunningly high percentage of voters (87%) in CNN's exit polling who based at least part of their decision on the debates. Romney only won by 10 percentage points in that category (43/33), but another weak performance could easily have doomed him.

Is the primary over at this point? Gingrich would vociferously object to that notion, as would Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. It does begin to get more difficult from this point forward, though. Until now, the primary states have come one at a time. Starting next week, states start coming simultaneously, and organization will begin to make more of a difference than it has, even in Florida.

Romney's campaign announced its fourth-quarter fundraising before South Carolina, and it was an eye-popping $24 million, with almost $20 million of it in the bank. Gingrich only raised $10 million, his team announced a few hours before the polls closed in Florida, with $1.2 million in debt still on the books. That kind of fiscal dominance will allow the Romney team to do a lot more in parallel primaries than Gingrich can. And that will make a big difference as seven states hold contests in the next four weeks, and then ten more hold theirs on the same day in five weeks.

It's not over, and surprises may keep coming, but the landslide in Florida and the schedule put Romney in the driver's seat. If he keeps the lessons he learned in Florida in mind, Romney might not ever leave it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Morrissey.

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