Romney claims victory in Florida9:42 pm - 01/31/2012
Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Mitt Romney is the winner of the Florida primary, CNN projected Tuesday in a result that cemented the front-running status of the former Massachusetts governor for the Republican presidential nomination.
To cheers of "Mitt, Mitt, Mitt," Romney thanked his supporters for what he called a "great victory" just 30 minutes after the last polls closed.
A Florida campaign of vicious personal attacks between Romney and his closest competitor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, raised questions about whether the process would damage the eventual winner when it comes time to run against President Barack Obama in November.
At his victory speech in Tampa, the site of the Republican National Convention, Romney glided over his opponents and focused his remarks almost exclusively on President Obama.
"I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation," Romney said. "My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity."
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win," Romney said to cheers.
With 76% of the unofficial count, Romney had 47% of the vote compared to 32% for Gingrich, 13% for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and 7% for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Official results, with more than 1.5 million votes counted out of a total possible electorate of more than 4 million registered Republicans, also showed Romney at 47%, Gingrich at 32%, Santorum at 13% and Paul at 7%, according to the Florida Department of State website.
Final polls closed at 8 p.m. ET and Romney jumped out to a strong early lead, buoyed by solid support among more than 632,000 voters who cast absentee or early ballots. His solid victory blunted any momentum Gingrich gained from his January 21 victory in South Carolina.
Santorum said Tuesday night that the Florida result showed Gingrich was unable to build on his previous victory, and conservatives were coalescing around Santorum's candidacy as the viable right-wing alternative to the more moderate Romney.
Who voted in the Florida primary? "Gingrich had his shot," Santorum told CNN, adding he raised almost $4.5 million in January in what he called a fund-raising surge for his campaign.
According to exit poll information, Romney led in most categories to show his appeal to Republican voters who said their main concern was choosing a candidate who can defeat Obama.
One category he lost to Gingrich was among voters who considered themselves "very conservative," according to the exit poll data. However, Romney ran strongly among women voters, getting 51% to 29% for Gingrich, indicating that Gingrich's history of three marriages, two divorces and infidelity might be harming him.
The victory gave Romney all 50 of Florida's convention delegates, and more importantly, new momentum heading into a series of caucuses and primaries in the next month building up to Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states will hold nominating contests.
"I think the winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN Tuesday. "Florida is a mini America."
In the final Florida poll of likely GOP primary voters, released Tuesday by the American Research Group, former Massachusetts Romney had a 12-point lead over Gingrich, with Santorum and Paul far behind. The poll, conducted Sunday and Monday, has a margin of error of four percentage points.
Of the early voters surveyed in the ARG poll released Tuesday, 51% reported voting for Romney and 29% said they voted for Gingrich.
But among voters planning to cast their ballots Tuesday, Romney's lead was tighter, with 39% saying they would vote for him and 32% throwing their support to Gingrich. Santorum was the choice of 14% of election-day voters. Paul came in fourth, with 10%, according to ARG.
"The GOP contest may end in Florida, but that doesn't mean it will be over," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor. "With a win, Romney puts the nomination firmly in his grip. But it appears Gingrich and Santorum will keep trying to rip it from his hand."
"Romney's relentless and disciplined effort should get more credit," added Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney's 2008 nomination bid but is not taking sides this cycle. "No long passes, just three yards a play and a cloud of dust. But with a win on Tuesday, he'll have gotten the nomination the old-fashioned way: He'll have earned it."
Gingrich held several events Tuesday, including a morning trip to the First Baptist Church of Windermere in Orlando, Florida, where he shook hands and took pictures with supporters. Romney held a mid-morning event at his Tampa headquarters.
93% Florida campaign ads negative The former House speaker stormed into Florida 10 days ago on a roll off of his double-digit victory over Romney and the rest of the field in the South Carolina primary.
But his momentum quickly faded after Romney's campaign went on the offensive. Romney turned in two strong debate performances in the Sunshine State and unleashed a barrage of ads targeting Gingrich.
Negative ads accounted for 92% of political ads airing in Florida over the last week -- a record rate for political campaigns, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advertising content and spending.
"I spent much of my academic career telling reporters, 'Relax, this is not the most negative campaign ever,' " CMAG President Ken Goldstein said. "Well, this IS the most negative campaign ever."
Romney told reporters Tuesday that he had learned his lesson from his South Carolina loss.
"If you're attacked, I'm not going to just sit back," he told reporters in Tampa, repeating a refrain he's used regularly recently. "I'm going to fight back and fight back hard."
On the day before the primary, Romney and Gingrich continued to clash, with Gingrich accusing Romney of dishonesty but conceding that a wave of attack ads by the former Massachusetts governor and his supporters had been effective.
"Frankly if all that stuff were true I wouldn't vote for myself," Gingrich said in Jacksonville Monday, referring to what he called "dishonest" Romney ads.
He later told a crowd in Pensacola that "we will only win if the American people decide that they are sick and tired of the New York and Washington establishment thinking that we are dumb enough to let them try to buy an election by telling us things that we all know are just plain not true."
The Romney campaign and an independent super PAC supporting his bid have greatly outspent Gingrich and pro-Gingrich super PACs on ad buys in Florida.
Romney acknowledged the turn to the negative, saying that his campaign was forced to respond to a negative salvo that helped Gingrich win in South Carolina.
And Romney said Gingrich's vow over the weekend to take his presidential campaign all the way to the Republican convention is a sign of desperation.
"That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," Romney told reporters on his campaign charter on Monday. "When you say 'I'm going to go on no matter what happens,' that's usually not a good sign."
Gingrich "has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other," Romney said later Monday to a crowd in Dunedin. "You just watch it and shake your head. It has been kind of painfully revealing to watch."
Romney shrugs off Gingrich vow While Romney and Gingrich were in Florida on Tuesday night to watch election returns, Santorum and Paul, knowing they're out of the running for the 50 delegates, have moved on to the next contests.
Santorum campaigned in Colorado and Nevada on Tuesday, while Paul was in Maine over the weekend and was spending Tuesday in Colorado and Nevada.
Nevada's caucuses take place Saturday, when Maine starts its week-long caucuses.
Minnesota and Colorado hold their caucuses on February 7, the same day that Missouri holds its non-binding primary.
In Lone Tree, Colorado, Santorum called on voters to consider questions that have arisen about the character and discipline of Gingrich, his main rival for support from conservatives.
"It's an issue of trust," Santorum said when a man at his Tuesday event challenged the character of Gingrich, who has been divorced twice and cited for a violation of House ethics rules.
Personal mistakes don't automatically disqualify someone from seeking high office, Santorum said, noting Gingrich has sought forgiveness.
"I don't question his sincerity of his repentance, but as I have said many times there is two areas that are open for concern and that is -- the issue of trust and whether someone who has a record of that is someone you feel comfortable has truly changed and you forgive them," Santorum continued. "That doesn't mean they necessarily have changed their ways."
The Paul and Santorum campaigns are strategically looking to states in which they can pick up delegates.
Gingrich, too, focused part of his remarks on Obama and his own plans for reversing steps the Obama administration has taken. Gingrich said if elected, he would abolish all White House czars by executive order on his first day, as well as authorize the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline which the Obama administration so far has held up.
Santorum and Paul kept a positive outlook, with neither candidate showing an inclination to bow out. Both candidates had largely ignored Florida, letting Romney and Gingrich duke it out while they pressed ahead in other states.
"Ultimately they're conceding in advance in Florida, while trying to shore up future states," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and Republican National Committee communications director. "Unfortunately for Paul and Santorum, that generally has not been a winning strategy. It's not being done out of a position of strength."
Romney's convincing win in Florida, coupled with an unfriendly calendar for Gingrich in February with friendlier Super Tuesday states more than a month away, could put Gingrich in a bind.
Gingrich campaign lowers Nevada and Michigan expectations
"If he loses Florida, February doesn't look good for Newt Gingrich. He'll lose Nevada, with its large LDS (Mormon) population and lose Michigan (February 28), where Romney's father was governor. Newt will have a long march across the desert with no debates to revive his campaign," Castellanos said. "Newt has to hold his breath all the way to Super Tuesday, March 6th, raise 30 or 40 million dollars for advertising and fix his problem with female voters to catch Romney. Those are grandiose problems, even for Gingrich."
But even after Florida's 50 convention delegates are claimed in the winner-take-all primary, neither candidate will have more than 10% of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination at the August convention.