Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stormed to a convincing win in Florida’s Republican presidential primary Tuesday, bolstering the front-runner’s argument that he is the best candidate to compete with President Barack Obama in swing states in the general election.
Romney had 46.42 percent of the vote to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 31.93 percent.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul were far behind, with 13.34 and 7.01 percent of the vote, respectively.
The win allowed Romney to show off his ability to win a state that will be the largest competitive prize in the November showdown with Obama.
Standing in Tampa, where Republicans will gather in seven months to hold their convention, Romney gave a speech that at times sounded like he was accepting the GOP nomination.
“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.”
Romney swept the major metropolitan areas of the state, though the results were very close in Duval County, where Romney won by fewer than 1,400 votes out of more than 86,000 cast.
Gingrich carried many of the largely rural counties in North Florida and the south-central part of the state.
The victory was almost certain to ratchet up pressure on Gingrich, who has vowed to fight on, to drop his upstart bid.
Gingrich came into Florida with a full head of steam after his South Carolina victory Jan. 21, but the momentum fizzled after two lackluster debate performances and an avalanche of negative ads from Romney’s campaign and “super” P
Florida House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) said Romney’s win in Florida had “defined” the race.
“I think that Mitt Romney has shown that he’s the candidate that is going to win the nomination,” Weatherford said. “The other candidates have to decide how long they want to stay in.”
Gingrich showed no interest in stepping aside following the defeat.
“It is now clear this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate,” the former speaker said in his post-election speech.
That prospect delighted Democrats, who watched the Florida primary devolve into a bitter and personal feud between Gingrich and Romney.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said Romney’s bombardment of Gingrich had tarnished his future prospects in the state.
“He may have won this contest, but he lost the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people of Florida,” Smith said.
Romney and party leaders were quick to say that the battle would soon enough give way to a party united in an effort to defeat Obama.
“A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win,” Romney told hundreds of cheering supporters who waved American flags and “Florida Believes” signs.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, who joined the Romney party but officially remains neutral, suggested that the back-and-forth amounted to a vetting of the candidates and could inoculate the party’s nominee against attacks from Obama in the fall.
“We have a winner here now,” Curry said. “I think the negative advertising is old news.”
Mitt Romney 40%
Newt Gingrich 39%
Rick Santorum 13%
Ron Paul 7%
Voter turnout 87,612
Registered voters 193,613
Turnout percentage 45%
Mitt Romney 46.4%
Newt Gingrich 31.9%
Rick Santorum 13.3%
Ron Paul 7%
Source: Florida Division of Elections