MIAMI Mitt Romney turned the tables on Newt Gingrich in Tuesday's Florida primary, stealing his Tea Party clothes in the process.
Exit polling data showed Romney beat Gingrich in one of the former House of Representatives speaker's core conservative constituencies, a sign that Republican voters may be coalescing around the man they think can best win the general election in November against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Out of the 66 percent of Florida voters who said they supported the small-government Tea Party movement, 41 percent cast their ballots for Romney and 38 percent for Gingrich, according to the data compiled for U.S. news organizations.
Gingrich barely held onto the evangelical vote, winning that by the slim margin of 39 percent to 36 percent. Rick Santorum, the evangelical favorite, won only 13 percent of voters who identified themselves as white, evangelical born-again Christians.
Gingrich's poor showing among Tea Partiers was not altogether surprising though, said University of South Florida political scientist, Susan MacManus.
"Part of the Tea Party movement here ... was concerned mostly about the deficit and the excessive spending and I think Romney got that portion of it.
"Gingrich got more of the Tea Party slice that's concerned about the constitutionalism, the explosion of government and federal authority. It was never a cohesive movement here to begin with. And the fiscal side of it was always the larger side of the Tea Party," she said.
The loose-knit Tea Party movement of anti-Obama conservatives sprang up before the 2010 congressional elections demanding fiscal restraint and a smaller role for government.
MacManus pointed out that Gingrich carried Florida's conservative Panhandle district, indicating he could do well in the like-minded southern states that vote March 6.
After losing to Gingrich in South Carolina. Romney also appeared to have won back one of his main selling points, the so-called electability factor that measures a candidate's ability to beat Obama
Fifty-eight percent of Florida Republican voters who said an ability to defeat Obama was the most important quality they were looking for in a candidate cast their ballots for Romney, according to the exit poll data. Only 33 percent of those voters said they supported Gingrich.
ECONOMY A FACTOR TOO
Romney's reputation for financial turn-arounds also overcame Gingrich's negative ad campaign that tried to paint his rival as a job killer as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
Exit polling data showed the former Massachusetts governor convinced voters he would better steer the economy out of troubled waters than Gingrich. Fifty-two percent of voters who said the economy was an important factor in their decision favored Romney, versus only 32 percent for Gingrich.
For 62 percent of Florida voters, the economy was far and away the most important issue, with topics such as abortion and immigration registering only single-digit interest. The exit polls showed that the housing crisis and Florida's high foreclosure rate was a major factor for 50 percent of those casting ballots.
In South Carolina, Gingrich's more combative style in debates resonated with voters looking for someone with the ability to take on Obama's renowned speaking skills. But Florida's outcome indicated that Romney's less colorful focus on jobs and the economy outweighed Gingrich's reputation as a pitbull.
In fact, Gingrich's style appeared to be a liability in Florida, where 86 percent of people polled said the debates were a major factor in deciding their vote.
"People don't want a fireballer who's going to say crazy things out of the side of his mouth," said University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski. "It's a dignified office and Newt might not be the right person for it."
However, the exit polls showed that Romney has not closed the deal with Republican voters. Although 57 percent of voters said they were satisfied with the choice of candidates, almost four in 10, or 39 percent, said they were not satisfied.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Brown; Editing by Doina Chiacu)