Romney wins the Florida battle but he must prepare for a dirty war

Mitt Romney may have won the battle, but he'd be well advised to dig out a flak jacket for the dirty war ahead.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary electionAP Photo, Gerald Herbert

After a testing couple of weeks on the stump, the former Massachusetts governor has emerged, yet again, as the firm frontrunner in the race to get the White House nod.

But events in the run up to this week's Florida vote have left their mark on his campaign and a scar on the Republican Party that may not heal in time for the presidential run-off.

The Sunshine State produced the stormiest contest so far, caused in no small part by the decision of former House speaker Newt Gingrich to play dirty.

"Nasty" Newt - Mr Hyde to the former House speaker's Dr Jekyll - was in evidence in Florida, helping produce a bitter campaign in which a lot of mud was slung in every direction.

Mr Gingrich attacked Mr Romney on policy, calling him a flip-flopper on social issues and painting his as a moderate who could not be trusted.

But he also went personal, labelling Mr Romney a liar and ridiculing his wealth, personal tax rate and use of off-shore accounts to squirrel away chunks of his fortune.

In the event, it did little to sway the vote. Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, romped home, taking 46% of the votes to Mr Gingrich's 32%.

It was a large win, and one which put Mitt Romney's campaign back on an even track after being knocked off course by his bitter rival in South Carolina.

Mr Romney took the opportunity of a victor's speech to mount a defence, of sorts, of the political bare-knuckle fighting that took place.

"A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us," he said, rather unconvincingly.

Having placed third in the Florida vote, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum used his post-poll address to appeal for an end to the negative campaigning.

Mr Gingrich grasped the olive branch, and used it to thrash Mr Romney...Breaking with protocol, the former House speaker refused to pick up the phone to congratulate the winner.

Newt GingrichAP Photo, Matt Rourke

And in comments made to supporters, Mr Gingrich made it clear that the latest loss would not see him dropping out.

"This will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," he said.

Mr Gingrich went on to vow to contest every state in his bid to derail the plans of Mr Romney and the "Republican establishment" that backs him.

Watching on from Washington, party bigwigs must have greeted the statement with a heavy sigh.

Mr Gingrich has the means and the desire to turn the remaining months of the Republican primary race into a nasty encounter for all concerned...political pundits predicted all-out war.

It could be time for politicos of a faint heart to make a retreat behind the sofa. Sitting comfortably in front, however, will be Obama strategists. A long and bitter Republican campaign serves their interests best.

Mitt Romney will almost without doubt make it onto the two-name ballot for the presidency, but he will arrive bloodied, weary and with his finances drained from the need to fund a protracted negative campaign.

In an attempt to win favour with Florida voters proud of the state's association with the space race, Mr Gingrich vowed last week to build a US colony on the moon.

Many within the Republican Party hierarchy may be forgiven for wishing that such a facility already existed. Mr Romney, for one, would be tempted to dip into his vast fortune to help purchase a one-way trip for "Nasty" Newt.