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Five things we learned from Florida

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 5:24 AM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters as his wife, Ann, looks on during his Florida primary night party on Tuesday in Tampa, Florida.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters as his wife, Ann, looks on during his Florida primary night party on Tuesday in Tampa, Florida.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Florida gives Mitt Romney a huge boost in his quest for GOP nomination
  • Almost half of polled voters said electability was a factor in decision
  • Despite win, conservative base is still having trouble coming around to Romney
  • Gingrich's efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters were fruitless in the end

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Mitt Romney scored an impressive win in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, solidifying his front-runner status in the race for the GOP nomination. Here are five things we learned from Tuesday's vote:

Electability was a factor

Making an electability argument in a primary is never easy.

Primary voters -- Republican and Democrat -- tend to vote with their hearts and not with their heads.

But Romney's pitch, repeated over and over again by campaign surrogates, is that he is the one candidate who can beat President Barack Obama in November.

Romney builds momentum with big Florida win

The pitch seemed to catch on in Florida, a state Republicans badly want to win in the general election.

Almost half of GOP voters -- 45% -- said the ability to defeat Obama is "the most important candidate quality."

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A large majority of those voters went for Romney. Only a third of them voted for Gingrich.

Romney is still not Mr. Conservative

Romney's win Tuesday was decisive and demonstrated that he is best-equipped among the Republican candidates to mount a large-scale campaign in a diverse state that will be pivotal in November.

And yet the conservative base is still having trouble coming around to Romney, whom Gingrich began calling "a liberal" in the closing days of the race.

Romney fared much better with conservatives in Florida than in South Carolina, a state with a smaller and more homogenous electorate.

But Gingrich beat Romney among several key groups: "very conservative" voters, those who strongly support the tea party movement, evangelicals, staunch abortion opponents and those who said that being a "true conservative" is the most important quality in a candidate.

Roughly 40% of Republicans said Romney's positions are "not conservative enough."

The slice of the GOP vote that refuses to warm to Romney gives Gingrich and Rick Santorum a rationale to soldier on through February and March.

Gingrich doubles down on the long haul

With a Florida loss on the horizon, Gingrich promised over the weekend that he would take his campaign all the way to the convention in late August.

It seemed like typical Gingrich bluster at the time.

But in his concession speech Tuesday night -- or was it a concession, since he didn't congratulate Romney? -- Gingrich made clear that he plans to follow through on his promise to turn the Republican race into a months-long hunt for delegates.

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"46 States To Go," read a sign attached to the front of Gingrich's podium in Orlando.

His supporters in the room waved signs bearing the same message as he spoke.

"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich declared.

He scolded the "elite media" for doubting him and pledged to carry on.

"I was just want reassure them tonight, we are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we are going to be in Tampa as the nominee in August," he said.

Gingrich's immigration pitch fell flat

Gingrich's efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters -- he described Romney as "anti-immigrant" and took a softer tone than his rival on illegal immigration -- were fruitless in the end.

Self-described "Latino" voters comprised 15% of the GOP vote, according to exit polls.

But more than half of those voters backed Romney, while Gingrich won less than a third of them.

In heavily Cuban Miami-Dade County, one of the largest Republican counties in the state, Romney trounced the former House speaker by a wide margin.

What does it mean?

Gingrich made a bad bet.

Exit polls showed that only 3% of voters named illegal immigration as the most important issue of the campaign. The economy was far and away the top issue.

In Florida, most Hispanics are either Cuban or Puerto Rican, and illegal immigration is not a pressing topic for either constituency.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, after all, and Cubans who flee their communist homeland are granted asylum if they land on American soil.

Florida voters are decisive

In a Republican race defined by its volatility and wild fluctuations, Florida voters appeared to make up their minds early and keep their cool.

A remarkable 70% of Republicans on Tuesday said they settled on candidate earlier this month or sometime before that.

Even more striking: 40% said they decided on their vote sometime last year.

Compare that with South Carolina exit polls, where a majority of voters said they made up their minds "in the last few days."

A large percentage of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire also went into the final days before those contests undecided.

Those early deciders broke heavily for Romney in Florida.

As a consequence, the nearly 600,000 early and absentee votes cast before Tuesday gave the former Massachusetts governor a huge cushion of votes heading into the primary -- not that he needed it in the end.

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