WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney coasted to a decisive victory in the battleground state of Florida on Tuesday, regaining the upper hand in his efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination after dropping millions of dollars in the Sunshine State to all but annihilate his biggest foe, Newt Gingrich.
Romney's campaign is renewed and reinvigorated with his victory in Florida just a few days before the "first in the west" Nevada caucuses this weekend, a contest their candidate won resoundingly in 2008 during his first run for president.
Unofficial results had Romney winning 47 per cent of the vote compared to 32 per cent for Gingrich, 13 per cent for Rick Santorum and seven per cent for Ron Paul.
"Primary contests are not easy and they're not supposed to be," Romney said during a victory speech in Tampa that went on to target U.S. President Barack Obama, not his Republican rival.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win .... 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 heads to Nevada, a state with a sizable Mormon population, on yet another wave of momentum in a historical roller-coaster ride of a race for the nomination. It's the first time in Republican party history that three different candidates won the first three contests of the race — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Now Romney has two triumphs under his belt — Florida and New Hampshire — following his humiliating defeat 10 days ago in South Carolina, where socially conservative primary voters handed a fiery Gingrich a double-digit win over the front-runner.
Gingrich has been on the warpath against Romney since the first contest of the Republican presidential race, the Iowa caucuses a month ago.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives blamed his falling fortunes in Iowa on negative advertising launched by the Romney campaign — but the blitz in the Hawkeye State was akin to a bow and arrow compared to the US$15 million cruise missile of anti-Gingrich advertising that Romney unleashed in Florida.
And yet it wasn't just the massive Romney cash infusion that turned the tables on Gingrich; after all, the former Massachusetts governor vastly outspent his rival in South Carolina, too. Florida exit polls suggested the state's two televised debates last week played a big role in helping voters make up their minds.
Romney had the two best debate performances of his campaign in Florida, hitting a startled Gingrich hard on myriad issues while deftly fending off attacks against his own background as a venture capitalist and the details in his newly released tax returns.
Female voters, too, caused the thrice-married Gingrich big-time trouble in Florida. Exit polling suggested the majority of female voters, particularly married women, dislike Gingrich and cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Romney, who's been married to the same woman for 42 years.
The fight in Florida was a bloody, bare-knuckled one, and continued right up until the 11th hour. A Gingrich robo-call being made as voters went to the polls in Florida essentially accused the front-runner of once forcing Holocaust survivors to eat non-kosher food.
The call said Romney vetoed "a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes — Holocaust survivors, who for the first time, were forced to eat non-kosher, because Romney thought five dollars was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher."
The ad, clearly aimed at Florida's large Jewish and elderly populations, prompted immediate condemnation from the Romney campaign, who called it a "desperate attempt" by Gingrich to deliver a body blow on election day.
In fact, the kosher veto was part of larger health-care cutbacks in Romney's 2003 budget. Funding for kosher food in nursing homes was subsequently restored.
While Romney, a multi-millionaire, spent more than US$15 million in Florida bashing his opponent, Gingrich did his best to push back with about a fifth of the cash.
Indeed, negative ads were so plentiful in Florida over the past week that they accounted for 92 per cent of all campaign commercials that ran, according to the Kantar Media Campaign Analysis Group. Sixty-eight per cent of those ads were attacks on Gingrich.
Gingrich, whose campaign has been declared dead several times since he entered the race last spring, has vowed to battle on until the bitter end. The delegate-rich state of Georgia, indeed, could be fertile ground for Gingrich, who served the state for years as a congressman.
The Georgia primary is being held on what's known as Super Tuesday on March 6. That's when several states hold primaries or caucuses.
In his concession speech in Orlando, Gingrich focused mostly on what he'd do during his first day in the Oval Office as president, despite his shellacking in Florida. He vowed that one of his priorities would be the immediate approval of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.
"My message to the Canadian people is don't build a pipeline to China, help is on the way," he said.
He also reiterated his suggestion that Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who finished a distant third in the primary, should drop out of the race.
Florida, Gingrich said, "made it clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich said in his concession speech in Orlando.
Santorum, however, suggested Tuesday night that Gingrich is the one who should step aside.
"Newt Gingrich had his opportunity ... he couldn't deliver Florida," he told CNN.
In his own speech, this one in Nevada, Santorum chided his rivals for Florida's negative campaign.
"Republicans can do better," he said. "What we saw in the last few weeks in Florida is not going to help us win this election."
Romney, however, was unapologetic earlier Tuesday about his advertising juggernaut in Florida.
"I'll tell you, if you attack me, I'm not going to just sit back, I'm going to fight back and I'm going to fight back hard," Romney said Tuesday in Tampa.
"His comments most recently attacking me have been really quite sad and, I think, painfully revealing about the speaker and what he's willing to say and do to try and take the nomination. I just can't stand back and let him say those things about me without responding."
While the Romney campaign is confident about its chances in Nevada, Paul, the libertarian congressman, also has a solid organizational team in the state, as well as passionately loyal supporters. Paul finished second there in 2008 during his presidential run.
Tea Party sentiment is also strong in Nevada, something that could help Gingrich.