WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's resounding win in the Florida GOP primary is a warning shot to any Democrats who think the former Massachusetts governor will be a soft target.
Romney and his advisers showed dexterity, smarts and toughness in retooling his campaign within hours of his stinging loss in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Romney followed the revised roadmap to a tee.
He shredded Newt Gingrich in Florida's two debates, leaving the former House speaker fuming and flailing in the campaign's closing days. He summoned a host of prominent Republicans to denounce Gingrich. And he regained his image as the person best positioned to take on President Barack Obama this fall.
Democrats "like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak," a buoyant Romney told the crowd celebrating his victory Tuesday night. "But I've got news for them: A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us. And we will win!"
There is still plenty of time for things to go wrong for Romney. Gingrich might resuscitate his campaign, as he did after his Iowa collapse, although GOP insiders say the odds are not good.
If Romney does become the nominee, his highly negative campaign tactics may hurt him among independent voters. And Obama might do a much better job of hitting Romney's record at Bain Capital and his switches on key policies over the years.
But the smug comments by some Democrats who said Romney is soft, untested and unable to take a punch have been obliterated.
"It feels like Mitt Romney's campaign has passed a crucial test and become the kind of campaign we're going to need to defeat Barack Obama in the fall," said longtime Republican strategist Terry Holt.
The most impressive thing about Romney's Florida win is how quickly his team shifted gears after his embarrassing 12 percentage point loss to Gingrich in South Carolina. Romney's team hatched a new strategy hours before the loss was official: Romney would get meaner to make Gingrich madder.
Romney immediately agreed to focus his main attacks on Gingrich, not Obama. He would highlight touchy subjects such as Gingrich's well-paid consulting work for Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lender that some Floridians blame for their state's housing crisis.
The new, tougher Romney made a dramatic debut Jan. 23, at a debate in Tampa. He ripped into Gingrich from the opening bell, saying the former speaker "had to resign in disgrace" in 1998, only to become "an influence-peddler in Washington."
Gingrich, who had re-energized his campaign with two fiery debates in South Carolina, seemed taken aback and unsure how to respond.
Romney was even more sure-footed in Thursday's debate in Jacksonville. He seemed better prepared, more focused and more aggressive than Gingrich at nearly every turn.
Romney's research staff had handed him a crucial bit of information shortly before the forum. Earlier that day, Gingrich had rebuked Romney for owning shares of Freddie Mac. Romney's staff quickly found similar holdings in Gingrich's financial disclosures. When Romney confronted his rival with the fact on the debate stage, Gingrich was left speechless.
Romney's team of advisers, including Stuart Stevens and new debate coach Brett O'Donnell, showed the type of flexibility, solid research and fast, incisive thinking that helped Obama beat the highly regarded campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton four years ago.
No campaign strategy is better than its candidate, of course. For 10 days in Florida, at least, Romney displayed a level of discipline and confidence that could worry Obama fans.
To be sure, Romney had advantages in Florida he's unlikely to enjoy in the fall, if he's nominated. Gingrich inexplicably dropped the feisty debate style that helped him win South Carolina. And Romney's team overwhelmed Gingrich in spending, flooding Florida's airwaves with attack ads.
Romney's win "was fueled by a 4.5-to-1 spending edge that he'll never have as the nominee," said Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs also said Romney has damaged his image among independent and Hispanic voters by using "a harsh and negative tone" and taking hard-right positions on issues such as immigration.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll gives some credence to that view. It found that Romney's negative ratings with independents have climbed 13 percentage points since December.
Some Democrats say those independent voters, crucial in all general elections, will be more receptive to criticisms of Romney's record at Bain Capital. The corporate reorganization firm has a history of both creating and eliminating jobs.
Gingrich's criticisms of Bain fell so flat with GOP voters that he abandoned them in South Carolina. Romney has weathered other assaults from his rivals as well, including taunts about his changed positions on abortion, gun control and gay rights, and his push for mandatory health insurance in Massachusetts.
Detractors say Romney's answers are often evasive or illogical. Maybe so, but that didn't hurt him much in Florida. He now goes to Nevada, Michigan and other states as a battle-tested candidate who has proven he can get up after being knocked down.
Some Democrats are impressed.
"Romney's flaws have mostly surfaced and been addressed, and he got stronger," said Matt Bennett, a former aide to Al Gore and a vice president of the pro-Democratic group Third Way.
"The idea that a primary is like a naval bombardment that softens up the enemy is a myth," Bennett said. "A primary is more like a series of bouts that prepares a boxer for the title fight. You take a few punches, but on balance, you become a better, stronger fighter."
For Romney, Florida seemed to do exactly that.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.