NEW: Mitt Romney regains the lead in a national poll
NEW: Newt Gingrich says Romney has the advantage in Nevada
Romney explains his comment about not being concerned about the very poor
Candidates head west to campaign in Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado
Fresh off a momentum-building victory in the Florida primary, Mitt Romney made a potential speaking gaffe Wednesday when he said he “wasn’t concerned about the very poor” because there is a safety net in place for them.
The comment in an interview with CNN focused new attention on the ability of Romney, a multimillionaire, to connect with ordinary voters as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination to run against President Barack Obama in November.
Romney cemented his status as the GOP front-runner in the Florida vote Tuesday, winning the bitterly contested primary with 46% support, compared with 32% for Newt Gingrich, 13% for Rick Santorum and 7% for Ron Paul, according to the Florida Department of State.
The victory gave Romney all 50 of Florida’s convention delegates and, more important, new momentum heading into a series of caucuses and primaries building up to Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states will hold nominating contests.
A national poll released Wednesday showed some immediate benefit for Romney, putting him in first place at 31% to 26% for Gingrich, 16% for Santorum and 11% for Paul.
The Gallup daily tracking poll previously had Gingrich ahead of Romney after the former House speaker won South Carolina’s primary on January 21.
Both Romney and Gingrich headed west on Wednesday to begin campaigning in Nevada, Minnesota and other states with upcoming contests.
The Florida win “feels pretty darn good,” Romney told CNN on Wednesday morning, calling the state a “microcosm of the nation” in some respects.
However, Romney said in response to a question that he’s not worried about the plight of the poorest Americans.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich; they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90%, 95% of Americans right now who are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.”
When pressed by CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien about his remark about the very poor, Romney cited food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers.
“You can choose where to focus,” he said. “You can focus on the rich; that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor; that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.”
Later, Romney told reporters that his initial remarks needed to be kept in context.
“You’ve got to take the whole sentence, (or else) it sounds very different,” he said. “We have a safety net for the poor. … If there are people that are falling through the cracks, I want to fix that.”
The comment evoked memories of previous Romney statements that prompted criticism, such as when he said at a campaign event that he liked to fire people who provided poor service.
In addition, Romney initially resisted releasing his tax returns until pressured by Gingrich and others but then had to defend his millions invested in offshore accounts and his 13% effective tax rate.
Gingrich responded to the Romney gaffe by criticizing candidates on both sides, referring also to Obama when he said, “I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other.”
The Florida victory gave Romney new prominence, with a federal law enforcement source telling CNN that the former Massachusetts governor will receive Secret Service protection “within days.”
Romney also got “glitter-bombed” Wednesday before and after a campaign event in Eagan, Minnesota, joking to supporters that it was confetti celebrating his Florida victory.
“Oh, I’ve got glitter in my hair,” Romney said at the start of his remarks. “That’s not all that’s in my hair. I’ll tell you that. I glue it on every morning, whether I need it or not.”
In full campaign mode, Romney immediately shifted the focus to Obama, saying the president won’t be seeing any confetti after the November election.
Questioning whether Obama was “detached from reality,” Romney said the presidential election will be crucial for determining the nation’s direction.
“This is really a watershed time for America to decide what we are going to be, and I believe that Americans want to have a president who understands how the economy works, who understands how people are suffering now and will use every ounce of his energy and passion to get Americans back to work with good jobs and rising incomes,” Romney said.
A t the end, another person threw glitter from a Pringles can on Romney. The demonstrators from Glitterati and Occupy Minneapolis, who have done the same to other Republican figures, protested Romney’s funding for his Mormon church, which they said opposed gay marriage.
In Nevada, Gingrich said he was campaigning to win the caucuses on Saturday even though Romney is considered the favorite in a state he won in 2008, due in part to a big population of fellow Mormons.
“He has a big advantage here, but nonetheless, I’d rather come in first,” Gingrich said. “I’ve never been satisfied coming in less than first.”
Santorum, meanwhile, argued at a Lakewood, Colorado, event that the Florida results showed that he, not Gingrich, was the viable conservative alternative to Romney.
He and Gingrich, the former House speaker, are vying for right-wing support in trying to establish themselves as the surviving conservative challenger to the more moderate Romney.
“If you look at the voters who voted for me and where they would go if I was not in the race, it would be divided between Romney and Gingrich, actually more toward Romney than Gingrich,” Santorum explained. “Interesting enough, if Newt is out of the race, almost all of his votes come to me.”
So far, Santorum continued, voters were supporting Gingrich because they thought he had a better chance to win, rather than due to his conservative credentials.
“One of us may be able to beat Mitt Romney, but that’s not the goal, folks. The goal is to beat Barack Obama,” Santorum said to applause.
The former Pennsylvania senator also went after Romney, saying his success so far has been based on outspending his rivals.
“Guess what, in the fall, he won’t have the most money, and he won’t have the best organization,” Santorum said. “I don’t care how much money he raises, he won’t have as much as Obama because Obama is just – all he is doing is saving it, and (Romney) won’t have the mainstream media on his side helping him out as it is in this race.”
Paul said he would do some light campaigning in Nevada on his 55th wedding anniversary after getting his wife breakfast in bed, though he admitted that “room service helped me out on that deal.”
Despite his last-place finish in Florida, which he conceded a while back to campaign elsewhere for upcoming contests, the Texas congressman said he can win the Republican nomination with a steady campaign to pick up delegates in states that award them on the basis of support received.
“We’re gonna win delegates because, you know, it isn’t winner takes all. So we expect to get delegates out of here,” Paul said of Nevada. “And there’s a very good chance that we could win. But that remains to be seen. We gotta prove ourselves, but we have been known for good organization and enthusiasm. And I think we can get the people out.”
Asked whether he might drop out of the race in order to bolster the campaign of Gingrich against Romney, Paul gave that possibility “zero chance.”
Noting that the crowds he draws now include a mix of his traditional young supporters attracted by his anti-war message as well as older voters, Paul said his message remains the same, but the world has changed.
“The financial crisis that many of us predicted has hit us, the housing bubble was there, the people are frightened; they have lost their trust in government,” Paul said. “They’re sick and tired of the wars, so the whole country has changed; the attitudes have changed.”
In addition, Paul said, the $1 trillion cut in government spending he proposes won’t touch Social Security or the medical benefits of people dependent on the government.
“I think they’re starting to recognize this, that I’m not a threat to what they really need and depend on,” he said. “And I think also the message of a time that they remember when government was less intrusive. I think the whole message of liberty is appealing. I talk about a remnant in society that hangs on to former beliefs, and all of a sudden, somebody is talking about them again. I think this is arousing their interest.”
The Florida campaign of vicious personal attacks between Romney and his closest competitor, Gingrich, raised questions about whether the primary process would damage the eventual winner when it comes time to run against Obama in November.
“A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us, and we will win,” Romney said to cheers at his victory speech Tuesday night.
Reflecting the bitter campaign, Gingrich refrained from congratulating Romney when he later spoke to supporters holding signs that read “46 states to go” in reference to the early stage of the GOP nominating process.
Instead, the former House speaker tried to frame the Florida result as a narrowing of the field, saying it is “now clear this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate.”
Romney told CNN on Wednesday that he wasn’t bothered by Gingrich’s response.
“As has been said long ago, politics ain’t beanbags,” he said. “We’re battling to become the nominee. He’s going to do it the way he thinks is best. I’m going to do it the way I think is best. So far my process has given me a good start. I know we’re going to go on. But I’m feeling pretty good at this point.”
No candidate has more than 10% of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination at the August convention.
Gingrich stormed into Florida after his double-digit victory over Romney and the rest of the field in the South Carolina primary on January 21.
His momentum quickly faded after Romney’s campaign went on the offensive, turning in two strong debate performances in the Sunshine State and unleashing a barrage of ads targeting Gingrich.
Negative ads accounted for 92% of political ads airing in Florida over the past week – a record rate for political campaigns, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advertising content and spending.
On the day before the primary, Gingrich accused Romney of dishonesty but conceded that the wave of attack ads had been effective.
“Frankly, if all that stuff were true, I wouldn’t vote for myself,” Gingrich said Monday in Jacksonville, referring to what he called “dishonest” Romney ads.
In his interview with CNN, Romney defended his attack ads against Gingrich, saying he was fighting back against a slew of attack ads the ex-speaker and his supporters had run against him in South Carolina.
And he said, “I know that if I’m the nominee, Barack Obama is going to spend almost a billion dollars attacking me. So you might as well get it out there now, learn how to respond and make sure that we’re able to get back to the real issue people care about when the time of the general election comes around. And that real issue is how to get America’s economy so strong.”
Obama’s re-election campaign has pushed back against speculation that it could raise $1 billion. Obama’s 2008 bid broke all records by raising nearly $750 million. In a video to supporters this month, campaign manager Jim Messina said “the billion-dollar number is completely untrue.”
Nevada’s caucuses take place Saturday when Maine also starts its week-long caucuses.
Minnesota and Colorado hold their caucuses Tuesday, the same day Missouri holds its nonbinding primary.
CNN’s John King, Shawna Shepherd, Rachel Streitfeld, Robert Yoon, Joe Johns, Alan Silverleib, Kevin Liptak, and Josh Levs contributed to this report.