Minutes after scoring a decisive projected win in a toughly fought Florida Republican primary, the biggest contest yet of 2012, Mitt Romney vowed to unite his party "with a winning ticket for America" and take on President Obama next fall.
Romney's Florida win, as projected by NBC News, appeared to put him firmly back in control of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney has 46 percent to rival Newt Gingrich’s 32 percent with 95 percent of precincts reporting, making him the projected winner, NBC News says.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win," Romney told his supporters in Tampa. "When we gather here back in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America."
His bitter rival, Gingrich, promised not to go away.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," he said. "And the voters of Florida really made that clear.”
Romney promised “a new era of American prosperity” in contrast to the years of the Obama administration, which Romney termed “35 months of unemployment above 8 percent.”
“Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses," he said. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time for you to get out of the way.”
Romney thanked people all over the state "for this great victory."
"Florida, you're the best!" he said.
But a defiant-as-always Gingrich, addressing his supporters in Orlando, reiterated his vow to take his campaign all the way to the party's convention.
“We are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August," the former speaker of the House said.
Gingrich thanked "the well over half a million Floridians who voted for us." He also made some populist ploys to the state's voters – promising, for example, that on the day he takes office he will sign an executive order telling the State Department “to open the embassy in Jerusalem and recognize Israel.”
Romney's apparent victory came 10 days after upstart Gingrich’s convincing win in South Carolina. In the 2012 race, that brief span may as well have been a lifetime.
After the former House speaker came into Florida with all the momentum, the former Massachusetts governor went after him hard in the two debates held here, especially the first held last Monday in Tampa. Romney credited his rebound to his aggressive response to Gingrich’s attacks, and to his own critique of Gingrich’s ties to the government-chartered mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
As recently as last Wednesday the Romney-Gingrich Florida face-off was a tossup. But a NBC News-Marist poll done over the weekend showed Romney had a 15 percent lead – 42 percent to 27 percent – and his projected win Tuesday was close to that.
With the projected win, Romney gets 50 delegates in the winner-take-all primary – the most one candidate has gained in a single 2012 contest to date.
The Florida homestretch turned noxious and negative, on the airwaves and in the two candidates’ rhetoric.
Gingrich went after Romney’s character, saying he is incapable of telling the truth, and accused Romney of cutting off “kosher food to elderly Jews on Medicare” as Massachusetts’ governor.
Romney said of Gingrich Tuesday: “It’s sad, he’s been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch and you shake your head, it’s been kind of painfully revealing to watch.”
The nasty tone turned off some Sunshine State voters, such as Gregorio Ruiz, 70, of Southwest Ranches.
“I didn’t like it all,” Ruiz said. “I believe these candidates, instead of attacking one another, should be proposing what they are going to be doing.”
Still, Ruiz said he voted for Gingrich, because he felt he has a better chance of beating President Obama.
Romney and his allied super PAC outspent Gingrich and the super PAC supporting him by about $15.5 million to $3.3 million in Florida, or nearly a 5 to 1 margin.
After four states have voted, the 2012 Republican scorecard, on its face, reads like this: Romney 2, Gingrich 1, Rick Santorum 1.
But Romney is the clear favorite. After months of a merry-go-round in which voters temporarily shot one after another “anti-Romney” candidate to the top of the polls – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain – Romney appears to be winning the war of attrition. He has far more money than the remaining candidates, party voters and leaders are gradually giving him more support, and he has the wind at his back once more.
At a Romney gathering in Hialeah, Isis Garcia-Mendez said "we need jobs, and I think he’s the right person to do it."
"We need to concentrate on the economy, bring jobs, and make this country once again what it was before," she said.
Six in 10 voters said the economy was the issue that mattered most in choosing a candidate, and about one-quarter mentioned huge federal deficits, according to an exit poll for The Associated Press and television networks.
Former Pennsylvania senator Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished far back, with 13 percent and 7 percent, according to the partial results tabulated by NBC News.
Santorum missed the last four days of campaigning to do his taxes and to be with his sick 3-year-old daughter, while Paul did not campaign in Florida down the stretch except during the debates. Both have said they will soldier on, however, with Paul focusing on gathering delegates in caucus states that are less expensive to campaign in than Florida, with its 10 media markets.
The Santorum campaign “raised over $4.2 million in January alone” and has over $1.1 million in cash on hand, his national communications director J. Hogan Gidley said in a tweet Tuesday.
Next up are the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, and Santorum, who is already there, said he looked ahead to “a little different result than in Florida."
"If there's one message that we got from the campaign in Florida, it's that Republicans can do better ... This campaign went downhill,” he told supporters in Las Vegas. “What we saw in the last couple weeks in Florida is not gonna help us in this election.”
Nevada is followed by caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota next Tuesday. Maine’s caucuses will mostly be held in the week leading up to Saturday, Feb. 11, when the results will be announced.
After that comes a quiet period, with no more contests until the big states of Michigan and Arizona hold their primaries Feb. 28.
Paul and Santorum were both in Colorado Tuesday, and Paul finished the night in Henderson, Nevada.
The libertarian-leaning Congressman noted that a few months ago there were nine Republican candidates, and now there are four.
"We’re in third place when it comes to delegates, and that’s what really counts," he said. "And we’ve only gotten started. Now the counting really occurs."
Paul said he got a "fantastic reception up in Maine" and was welcomed warmly in Colorado, where he made three stops Tuesday.
"If you have an energized group of people that are in a campaign, and actually believe in something, it’s better to work in the caucus states," he said.
Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, unsurprisingly declared that President Obama will win Florida again in the general election.
Many of the voters who turned out Tuesday line up with the Tea Party, Wasserman Schultz said, calling the GOP's electorate "extremely right wing" and "not reflective of the moderate purple state that Florida is."
Meantime, former Gov. Charlie Crist said that "the Republican Party has gone through a lot of twists and turns in the past four years."
Crist, who left the party to run as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2010 and then was badly beaten by Marco Rubio, said Tuesday that he would consider voting for Obama in November.
The question for Gingrich is whether he can pick himself up off the mat yet again, after two previous serious setbacks – last spring, when most of his top staff abandoned his campaign, and at the start of January, when his first foray as the Republican frontrunner ended in a fourth-place finish in Iowa.
A barrage of attack ads from his Republican opponents and super PACs dragged down Gingrich in Iowa, and after that defeat he immediately said that he would go on the offensive against Romney.
Romney took New Hampshire – a must-win for him – but Gingrich, buoyed by his debate performances, won conservative South Carolina by a 12-point margin.
But now Romney has reclaimed the frontrunner’s mantle, and Gingrich is promising “a long campaign” stretching all the way to the Republican national convention this summer in Tampa.
“When you take all the non-Romney votes, it’s very likely that at the convention there will be a non-Romney majority and maybe a very substantial one,” Gingrich said Sunday. “My job is to convert that into a Gingrich majority.”
At a polling station in Orlando Tuesday, Gingrich predicted the race would last another six months – “unless Romney drops out earlier.”
His campaign said it has raised more than $5 million in January, and pointed out that aside from Florida delegates are being awarded proportionally, so the battle for the nomination could remain close even if Romney piles up wins.
The blue sign splashed across Gingrich's podium Tuesday night made his message clear: "46 States To Go."