TAMPA, Fla. — Barreling out of Florida with money and momentum on his side, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said Wednesday that the bare-knuckled nomination fight thus far has toughened him up for contests to come. Chief rival Newt Gingrich is regrouping after a significant loss and faces serious disadvantages in the next states to vote.
Romney, who won big in Florida with a barrage of negative ads, predicted the tone of the GOP campaign was "just a precursor to what you'll see" from President Barack Obama in the general election. And he said voters paid more attention to what they heard in the campaign debates than whatever ads were flooding the airwaves.
"Perhaps what we're getting now inoculates us, or at least prepares us, for what will come down the road," Romney said as he made the rounds of morning television shows.
Looking ahead, Romney said his campaign is focused squarely on middle-income Americans — to the exclusion of others at either end of the spectrum. But his comments Wednesday about the poor appeared certain to be fodder for critics.
"I'm not concerned about the very poor," he said on CNN. "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 percent of Americans who are struggling."
Questioned about his comment on the poor, Romney reiterated that they have "a very ample safety net" but that "we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened."
Obama's campaign, looking to make some money off the GOP squabbling, issued a fundraising appeal Wednesday focused on the millions that Romney and his supporters had poured into negative ads.
"That's ugly, and it tells us a lot about what to expect from Romney if he wins the Republican nomination," said campaign manager Jim Messina. "They're going to try to spend and smear their way to the White House."
Romney said his path ahead "is looking very good" as he heads to Minnesota and Nevada for campaign stops Wednesday. Gingrich, meanwhile, worked to convince supporters that the primary is a two-person race.
Vowing to stay the course, Gingrich said Tuesday, "We are going to contest everyplace." He planned one appearance in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday.
Nevada and Maine have caucuses on Saturday. Minnesota and Colorado hold contests on Tuesday. Michigan and Arizona hold primaries on Feb. 28.
Romney begins February with formidable advantages in fundraising and organization. His campaign raised $24 million in the final months of 2011, dwarfing his competitors and leaving him with $20 million to fight a primary battle that's increasingly spread across many states.
The former Massachusetts governor has had staff and volunteers on the ground in upcoming states for months as he's prepared for a drawn-out fight for delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. Gingrich, meanwhile, doesn't have a strong ground game as he looks to contests in states that could prove problematic for him. And in a nomination fight so far defined by debates — typically a strong point for the former House speaker — he faces a three-week stretch without one. The candidates will next debate in Arizona on Feb. 22.
Romney won Nevada's caucuses in 2008, and a substantial Mormon population there could propel him to victory. Still, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has been organizing in the state for months and could pose a strong challenge. Romney's campaign is working to paint the nomination fight as a four-candidate contest, with Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum still in the mix. Santorum was campaigning in Colorado on Wednesday, and Paul in Nevada.
Romney's Florida win was a smart rebound from an earlier defeat and represented a major step toward the nomination. He'll receive Secret Service protection, beginning Wednesday, requested by his campaign.
Romney had 46 percent of the Florida vote to Gingrich's 32 percent. Santorum had 13 percent and Paul 7 percent; neither mounted a substantial effort in the state.
The winner-take-all primary was worth 50 Republican convention delegates, the most of any primary state so far.
But the bigger prize was precious political momentum.
That momentum belonged to Romney when he captured the New Hampshire primary three weeks ago, then swung stunningly to Gingrich when he countered with a South Carolina upset 11 days later.
Now it is back with Romney, after a change to more aggressive tactics, coupled with an efficient use of an overwhelming financial advantage to batter Gingrich with television commercials.
For the first time in the campaign, exit polls showed a gender gap in Romney's favor. He ran far better among women than Gingrich, winning slightly more than half of their votes, to three in 10 for his rival.
Only about half of women voters said they had a favorable view of the thrice-married Gingrich, while about eight in 10 had a positive opinion of Romney.