TAMPA, Fla—The celebration began well before Mitt Romney took the stage here to deliver his victory speech. Outside the ballroom in the Tampa Convention Center, where the Republican front-runner held his victory rally, more than 100 top fundraisers for Romney's campaign mixed and mingled, laughing and toasting Romney's expected victory at a makeshift bar.
Their nametags indicated that they came from all over the country—among other places, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, California, Texas and New York. They wore sequined jackets and leopard-print coats and sharkskin suits and tiny metal "ROMNEY" pins on their lapels.
Many clutched tiny American flags, while some held newly purchased T-shirts from "The Official 2012 Store" Romney's campaign had set up in the lobby. One shirt simply featured a map of the United States with the word "BELIEVE" written across the front.
"Feeling good! Feeling good!" said Spencer Zwick, Romney's national finance chairman, as he weaved through the crowd.
The donors made their way into an adjacent ballroom where Romney and his wife, Ann, addressed the group before the candidate officially claimed victory in Florida. Mrs. Romney read the names of many volunteers off a Teleprompter—freeing up her husband from having to deliver numerous thank you's. As the candidate's wife spoke about all the friends they had made on the campaign trail in Florida, one of the fundraisers shouted, "I'm from La Jolla!"
As Romney left the stage and worked his way along the rope line, the Florida donors, unlike other crowds the ex-governor has addressed, didn't push their way forward in hopes of catching a better glimpse of the candidate because so many already had their pictures taken with Romney. Instead, they socialized with each other—and talked about which campaign event might next bring them together.
"Nevada?" one donor asked.
"No," the other replied.
"Arizona?" the donor said.
"Uh, no. Maybe Super Tuesday," the other replied. "But Arizona is nice this time of year."
— Holly Bailey, 10:06 p.m. ET
A workman mounts a sign to the podium before Newt Gingrich's rally in Orlando, Fla. (Matt Rourke/AP)
The crowd, sparse for an election night rally, and populated partially by people who wandered in from unrelated conventions at the hotel, stood in the conference room soothing the agony of defeat with an assortment of rationalizations. (And liquor from the cash bar.)
Sure, he got creamed, they said, but we all saw this coming. The polls had him down for weeks.
No big deal. It's a long slog.
Those Romney attacks were vicious. Newt couldn't hold up against all the money thrown at him.
He'll have to if he wants to compete.
I suppose I could support Romney against Obama in 2012...
A slide on the jumbo screen read "46 STATES TO GO," a move to downplay Florida's importance and a gentle reminder that the primary process has (supposedly) a long way to go. A group of supporters stood on risers behind the podium, holding signs saying the same thing. "I want you all to know, it's not over," former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty told the crowd, hammering the point home.
Before Gingrich arrived, Mitt Romney delivered his victory speech in Tampa, and the DJ in Orlando played the Black Eyed Peas to drown out Romney's comments. Gingrich's supporters continued their conversations (and drinking), undeterred.
— Chris Moody, 10:11 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Is it November already? While the Republican presidential candidates were making their last-ditch pitches to Florida voters, Democratic National Committee representatives spent much of Tuesday bashing Mitt Romney, accusing him of pandering to seniors on the issues of Medicare and Medicaid.
He's a "political shape-shifter," Ed Coyle, the executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, told reporters on a conference call organized by the DNC. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic representative from Florida and the chairwoman of the DNC, said that Romney has been pandering on the issues of immigration, funding for NASA and entitlement programs ahead of the Florida primary.
He wants to "end Medicare as we know it," Wasserman Schultz said. "Now, he has the audacity to lie about it and tell seniors he has their back."
Throughout the Republican presidential race, the DNC has issued press releases, attack ads and held press events such as Tuesday's primary-day call to criticize Romney— who holds a strong lead over Newt Gingrich in Florida, according to the most recent polling.
Today's DNC call followed up on a morning event Wasserman Schultz held at a Hollywood, Fla., senior center, where she issued similar criticisms of the perceived Republican frontrunner.
— Rachel Rose Hartman, 4:06 p.m. ET
PLANT CITY, Fla.--Newt Gingrich made a midday stop at Fred's Country Kitchen, famous for good, old-fashioned, fried Americana.
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, shook hands with diners before hitting the buffet, which was loaded with fried chicken, orange sweet potatoes, a lake of gravy, corn bread, okra, hush puppies and biscuits.
Once Gingrich sat down to eat, a local aide tried to keep reporters away by demanding they leave the restaurant or be escorted out. No one listened.
One reporter from the Wall Street Journal, on the hunt for dessert, was confronted near the salad bar and told to exit immediately. She resisted.
"I'm just looking for the ice cream," she said. The aide grumbled something and walked away.
After enough reporters ignored him, he gave up. And so did the Wall Street Journal reporter. She never found the ice cream.
--Chris Moody, 1:50 p.m. ET
TAMPA, Fla.—Mitt Romney had been set to hold a morning rally here to mark the arrival of Election Day, but his campaign canceled the event Monday night without much explanation.
Speculation among the press corps was that Romney wanted to end his Florida primary push with the image of a big rally, and last night, he got it. Romeny attracted one of his biggest crowds of the campaign as several thousand people showed up to hear him speak at The Villages, a retirement community in central Florida.
Standing in front of a gigantic sign that read "Florida is Romney Country," Romney at one point led the crowd in singing "America the Beautiful"—which, as he notes at almost every campaign stop, is his favorite hymn. It was a made-for-television lead-off to what is expected to be a big win here.
So instead of holding a rally that probably wouldn't have been as--to borrow a word Rick Santorum used to describe Newt Gingrich--grandiose, Romney spent his morning schmoozing with volunteers at his headquarters just outside downtown Tampa. So many reporters turned up, his campaign organized an impromptu press availability outside the office building during which Romney defended his campaign against accusations he went too negative, telling reporters that his biggest takeaway from his loss in South Carolina was to attack when attacked, and insisting that Gingrich was the first to go negative.
"In South Carolina, we were vastly outspent with negative ads attacking me and we stood back and spoke about President Obama and suffered the consequence," Romney said, adding that Gingrich also benefited from good debate performances. (Romney and his super PAC actually spent more than double what Gingrich and his super PAC spent in South Carolina, Michael P. Falcone of ABC News reports.)
"I needed to make sure that instead of being outgunned in terms of attacks that I responded aggressively, and I think I have and hopefully that will serve me well here."
--Holly Bailey, 1:15 p.m. ET
WINDERMERE, Fla.--Next time, Eddie Dillard won't wear flip-flops.
Dillard, a 29-year-old Ron Paul supporter from this suburb near Orlando, arrived to vote at his precinct at Winderemere Baptist Church early Tuesday morning. Pulling into the parking lot, Dillard noticed a man outside the polling place with a Gingrich sign. He decided to run home, slip into his "Ron Paul Rocks America" T-shirt, grab a "Ron Paul 2012" sign from his garage, and return to give his candidate some representation outside the precinct after he cast his vote.
Dillard found a quiet spot along a sidewalk lined with tiny American flags and held up his sign. Little did he know, Newt Gingrich had chosen that very spot to make his first Primary Day campaign stop.
When Gingrich's bus pulled up, Dillard stood silently holding his sign and watched the news-media horde swamp the candidate. Gingrich stepped down from the bus and made a beeline for Dillard. He stopped in front of Dillard and his sign and parked himself for a round of handshaking and pictures with voters. The placement couldn't have been worse. There was Gingrich, standing with his wife Callista at their first event of the day, and a giant Ron Paul sign floated inches from their crowns.
Noticing the awkward optics, Gingrich aides and security personnel swarmed Dillard, trying to intimidate him into moving. One of Gingrich's security agents stepped in front of him. When Dillard didn't budge, the agent lifted his heeled shoe over Dillard's bare foot and dug the back of it into his skin, twisting it side-to-side like he was stomping out a cigarette. Shocked, Dillard kept his ground and took a picture of the agent with his phone, which was quickly knocked out of his hand. Dillard slipped off his flip-flop to pick up the phone with his foot, and a Gingrich supporter kicked the sandal away.
"Don't kick me!" Dillard said to the man who knocked away his sandal. More members of Gingrich's security retinue approached, shoving their shoulders and chests in front of him.
"Just block him!" a Gingrich campaign aide said. "Everyone step on his toes!"
Gingrich supporters handed a "Newt 2012" yard sign up to the front to put in front of Dillard's Paul sign. The two signs, zipping back and forth inches from Gingrich's head, circled each other in the air like a fighter jets in a dogfight.
When the candidate finished taking pictures with voters, furious Gingrich aides grilled Dillard.
"If we did this to you, you guys would be furious," said an aide before stomping back toward the bus. "They have no class. No class."
As Gingrich pulled away, Dillard looked down at his foot. With the adrenaline pumping, he hadn't noticed the pain, but now it was starting to sink in. A bruise was forming, and there was a cut mark where the security agent had dug in his heel.
"That was really something," Dillard said afterwards. "My heart's racing. Not what I expected to happen today."
--Chris Moody, 12:01 p.m. ET
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