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Romney wins Florida, but turnout less than 2008

By Staff | Feb 1, 2012

MIAMI (AP) – Despite two televised debates and a barrage of ads, Florida’s big-stakes Republican primary did not translate into a record number of GOP voters heading to the polls.

Mitt Romney won a winner-take all primary that state officials said went fairly smoothly but yielded a turnout of roughly 40 percent.

“I think that’s a respectable healthy turnout for a single party primary,” said Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

Four years ago a spirited contest featuring Romney as well as U.S. Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani attracted more than 1.94 million Republicans across the state. With more than 95 percent of the precincts reporting, the turnout stood at a little more than 1.6 million voters.

Top Florida officials pushed to move the state’s primary date to Jan. 31 despite the threat of sanctions from national Republicans. The contest took on added significance after Newt Gingrich defeated Romney in South Carolina 10 days ago.

Romney routed Gingrich in the Sunshine State, though some supporters interviewed Tuesday expressed little passion for him.

Mayra Canto, 55, said she voted for the former Massachusetts governor, but she also called him “the best of the worst.”

“I consider him to be more honest and with less baggage than the others,” the 55-year-old Canto said as she ordered coffee at Versailles Restaurant, a well-known political hub in Miami’s Little Havana.

Mario Denis, 36, said he planned to see how busy the polls were before going to vote. If he makes it into the voting booth, his vote will be for Romney, even though Denis said he wasn’t happy about the candidate’s foreign policy.

“The way I see it, it’s the lesser of two evils,” said Denis, who also was at Versailles.

Romney’s business experience swayed some voters concerned about the economic recovery. Others simply saw him as the candidate with the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama in the general election.

“I think he has a grasp of economics and business that the other candidates don’t have,” Tony Dowel said after voting for Romney at St. Edward Church in Palm Beach.

The 75-year-old retired stockbroker also supported Romney four years ago.

“I want to vote for a winner,” Dowel said.

Gingrich had momentum coming off his South Carolina primary win, but Romney and his allies poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising, primarily to attack Gingrich – a tactic that turned off some voters.

Sarah Agner of Miami said she would vote for Romney because he has “good values and morals,” but she said the negative ad campaigns had soured her on politics.

“I think the candidates are more interested in throwing each other under the bus than focusing on the issues,” said Agner, 37, who is studying to be a paralegal.

Retiree Dorothy Anderson said Romney’s ads pushed her to vote for Gingrich, the former House speaker and Georgia congressman.

“The dirty ads really turned me off on Mitt Romney,” she said after voting at a Pinellas Park retirement community. “In fact, if he gets the nomination, I probably won’t vote for him.”

But Gingrich’s baggage swayed retiree Curtis Dempsey against Gingrich. Dempsey, also voting at the retirement community, said he would sit out the general election if Gingrich wins the Republican nomination.

“Well, the only thing Newt Gingrich has to offer is a big mouth and he’s been showing that for some time,” Dempsey said. “Plus he got kicked out of the Congress. He was the lead man there for a while. How do you get kicked out of the Congress and then run for president of the United States?”

Gingrich resigned after a spate of ethics problems and a poor showing for House Republicans in the 1998 elections.

His supporters called him the “real conservative” in the Republican race.

James Pokrant had supported Herman Cain early on, but he voted Tuesday for Gingrich, whom Cain has endorsed.

“He’s more conservative than Mitt Romney and the problem I have with Mitt Romney is that he’s jumped the fence back and forth a couple of times. I believe in conservative values,” said Pokrant, a 41-year-old traffic signal technician who voted in Pensacola before going to work.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have ceded Florida’s vote to the two front-runners and planned to spend the day campaigning in Colorado and Nevada, but their supporters made themselves visible Tuesday.

A Paul supporter in the parking lot of a Miami polling station handed out fliers comparing all the Republican candidates with the Texas congressman.

Sandra Brady, 65, and her husband cast their votes for Santorum at a Palm Beach church. The couple, formerly of Indiana, Pa., said they have been familiar with Santorum’s politics for years.

“He’s the guy that has never wavered,” Brady said of Santorum, a social conservative. “He has been what he is today since the first time I ever heard him.”

Fineout reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in Palm Beach, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Tamara Lush in Pinellas Park, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Jennifer Kay in Miami and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.