After Florida win, Romney aims for February trifecta

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary election Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary election Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

TAMPA, Fla. -- On the heels of his resounding victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, Mitt Romney will now look westward to three upcoming GOP contests in his attempt to effectively wrap up the nomination by the end of February.

Though Florida is only the second state he has captured thus far, Romney sounded in his victory speech as if he is already focused on healing intra-party wounds and pivoting toward a general election campaign.

"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us," he said. "And we will win. And when we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now at our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America."

Though Romney is scheduled make a quick stop in Minnesota on Wednesday, his attention for the rest of the month will largely be devoted to three other states whose elections could provide him with a sense of unalterable momentum: the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28.

Romney carries significant advantages in all three, which figure to be key states in the general election.

If he can pull off the trifecta of February victories, it could become exceedingly difficult for Newt Gingrich to rely on the subsequent March 6 Super Tuesday contests as a platform for yet another comeback.

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While the other remaining GOP competitors -- Ron Paul and Rick Santorum -- aim to regain some momentum by performing especially well in Maine, Colorado and Missouri (the three states that will join Minnesota in holding non-binding contests next week), pro-Romney sources inside and outside his campaign suggest that none of these lower-profile states is essential to their candidate's prospects.

"The perfect scenario is that he just wins everything and squeezes everybody else out of the race sooner, but if I were him, I might start to triangulate a little bit," said Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who was a top strategist on Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. "If you've got to lose a Colorado caucus to do that, it doesn't really mean anything in the nomination race. He's got to start keeping an equal eye on the general election."

Current top Romney aides were reticent when asked about the extent to which Romney will compete in the upcoming caucus states, citing concerns about revealing their strategy to rival campaigns.

But a spokesperson for Restore Our Future -- the super PAC that helped fuel Romney's Florida recovery by bombarding the airwaves with a multimillion-dollar TV advertising blitz -- told RCP that it plans to air ads in Nevada, Michigan and Arizona.

The super PAC's total ad buy for those three states is a relatively modest $650,000, but the amount could be increased if Romney is seen as vulnerable in any of the approaching contests.

Despite the organizational advantages that the well-oiled Romney machine could bring to small-turnout caucus states, his campaign appears to be treating the non-Nevada caucuses as something of an afterthought.

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Ron Paul sets sights on Nevada caucuses

Asked last week about how Romney might fare in the Minnesota caucuses, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- a Romney campaign national co-chair -- noted the state's nonbinding delegate status. He also seemed to downplay its significance by noting that Ron Paul might be positioned to do well there.

"I don't know to what extent it's going to be vigorously contested or not," Pawlenty told RCP.

But with all four major candidates heading to Nevada in advance of Saturday's caucuses, there is no doubt about the level to which the Silver State will be contested.

In 2008, Romney won the Nevada caucuses with a majority of the vote in a multi-candidate field, as he bested Paul, the second-place finisher, by a whopping 51 percent to 14 percent.

Paul is placing an even greater emphasis on that state this time around. Both he and Santorum held public events in the Las Vegas area on Tuesday night to try to get a jump on Romney.

But the former Massachusetts governor retains clear advantages there, perhaps most significantly his dominant standing among Nevada Republicans who share his Mormon faith. In 2008, exit polls showed that Romney was the choice of about 90 percent of Mormon caucus-goers, who composed more than a quarter of the GOP electorate.

To a lesser extent, the Mormon influence also figures to pay dividends for Romney in Arizona. As a native of Michigan, he figures to be the heavy favorite in that state, where he beat John McCain in 2008 and his father is still remembered as a popular former governor.

But even if Romney were to win that trifecta, an increasingly defiant Gingrich is in no mood to quit. He has vowed to take his campaign all the way to the convention and appears to see little personal gain in bowing to the front-runner.

As Romney is increasingly perceived as the Republican establishment's anointed candidate, prominent conservative media voices -- led by Sarah Palin -- could further coalesce around Gingrich as the alternative voice for a Tea Party bloc eager to prove its continued influence.

The Super Tuesday contests on March 6 feature several southern and heavily rural states that might be fertile ground for the former House speaker, as the Republican nominating fight becomes a delegate-accumulating contest rather than a battle for momentum.

Nonetheless, the potential obstacles Gingrich faces seem more glaring than the opportunities.

Super Tuesday, for instance, is also the date of the Virginia primary, where Gingrich is not on the ballot and which remains emblematic of the constraints he faces in slowing or stopping the increasingly robust Romney juggernaut.

If Romney can meet expectations by winning Nevada, Michigan and Arizona, he could gain the stature to sound even more of the general election notes he trumpeted in his Florida victory speech -- while leaving his cadre of prominent GOP surrogates to deal with the remaining GOP field.

Full Florida primary results
Florida exit poll
Republican delegate scorecard
Full state-by-state GOP primary results

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.