By Josh Lederman and Niall Stanage - 02/01/12 11:10 AM EST
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney hopped a one-way flight to Minnesota on Wednesday, the wind at his back as he emerged from a forceful victory in Florida's presidential primary.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Romney topped his nearest rival, Newt Gingrich, by 14 points, 46 percent to 32. But even as he celebrated his Florida triumph, the former Massachusetts governor committed himself to an extended and hard-fought nominating contest that is still near the beginning.
"There are fewer candidates than when the race began, but the three gentlemen left are serious and able competitors," Romney told a few thousands supporters who packed a ballroom in Tampa.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) came in third with 13 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was last with 7 percent in the Florida primary.
Gingrich was adamant on Tuesday that for his campaign, the road does not end in Florida. He will attend a rally in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday and has planned further events in Las Vegas.
But Romney won the Nevada caucuses in 2008 and could benefit from a large swath of Mormon voters there, making success for Gingrich in the Silver State a very steep climb. The same is true of Michigan, which this year votes on Feb. 28.
The hope for Gingrich is that he can somehow stay in contention until Super Tuesday, on March 6, when 11 states vote. These include more Gingrich-friendly territories, including, in the South, Tennessee and Gingrich’s home state of Georgia.
All of Romney's rivals will now have to answer questions about the viability of their campaigns, particularly in the face of a nominating calendar that favors the former governor.
Romney’s decisive win on Tuesday was an emphatic comeback as he reclaimed his status as the GOP's front-runner.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us and we will win. When we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America," he said.
But Romney's election-night remarks focused on the man he hopes to defeat in November — President Obama.
“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 said.
Exit polls showed the factors that most Florida voters used to make their decision clearly favored Romney.
Two-thirds of voters said the debates had been important to them in picking a candidate, and Romney had his best two debates of the season in Florida. Almost half said that electability against Obama was the most important quality they looked for, while only 13 percent said they were looking for a true conservative.
The blowout victory in the crucial swing state also adds to the storyline Romney is the inevitable nominee. Romney’s success in Florida signaled viability in a swing state crucial to both parties’ road to control of the White House.
The first primary state of the season to allocate its delegates in a winner-take-all fashion, Florida represents the most diverse electorate the candidates have had to face, and Romney’s win will likely help him make the case that his appeal is widespread.
“Today is the most important thing in the world to me,” Romney said earlier Tuesday while votes were still being cast. “It’s a big state. In some respects, Florida is a microcosm of the nation.”
Romney’s Florida victory marked a dramatic turnaround for the former Massachusetts governor, whom Gingrich had trounced by a dozen points in South Carolina just 10 days earlier. It also helped Romney quash concerns among his supporters that he had ceded his position of dominance over the GOP field to the former Speaker.
From the start of the 2012 cycle, Romney has embraced — and sometimes battled — the idea he is the inevitable nominee.
He won New Hampshire, as expected, and came in second in Iowa and South Carolina. But it’s Florida, which played kingmaker in the 2008 GOP race, that gave the former governor major momentum.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who hasn’t endorsed in the primary, told CNN earlier Tuesday that “the winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party.”
Meanwhile, Paul and Santorum, lacking the financial resources to compete in such an expensive state, essentially skipped Florida, opting to get a head start in other upcoming states.
That left Gingrich and Romney to brawl in the Sunshine State and, throughout the past week, their attacks grew more venomous by the day.
Each candidate lobbed accusations about the other’s integrity in a no-holds-barred scuffle that at times became intensely personal. Gingrich said Romney’s attacks had been “breathtakingly dishonest,” while Romney claimed Gingrich’s statements had been “really quite sad” and “painfully revealing about the Speaker and what he’s willing to say and do.”
But Romney’s success was also due at least in part to the substantial ground game he started deploying in Florida weeks in advance, while his opponents were still focused exclusively on New Hampshire and South Carolina. Romney was the first candidate on the air in Florida, and various analyses estimated he and super-PACs supporting him outspent his rivals in Florida by as much as five to one.
Even before voting had wrapped up, Gingrich and his team were working to lower expectations ahead of an anticipated defeat.
Campaigning in Windermere, Fla., Gingrich said his goal was to "be happy and do well." And asked by The Hill what would constitute doing well, he said it would be receiving "the maximum number of votes we can get” and declined to offer a more specific prediction.
But Gingrich has rejected all calls to bow out of the race, vowing to continue competing through the summer, if necessary until the August nominating convention in Tampa.
When Romney ran for president four years ago, he came in second to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Florida. This time around, the former GOP nominee reconciled with Romney and backed his presidential bid, flying from one corner of Florida to the next to lend his credibility to Romney on the stump.
As Romney declared victory in Florida, his fortunes were buoyed further by a primary calendar that will be unquestionably favorable to him in the coming weeks. The next two contests — Maine on Feb. 4 and Nevada on Feb. 7 — are expected to be relatively easy wins for him. February will also include the primary in Michigan, where Romney’s father served as the state’s popular governor.
And without an electoral victory in Florida to give his struggling campaign momentum, it could be hard for Gingrich to continue raising the funds he will need to soldier on. His campaign announced Tuesday he had raised about $10 million in the last three months of 2011 and another $5 million in January. But those figures, while strong, still put him far behind Romney in the money race. The former governor brought in $24 million between October and December and had $19 million in cash on hand as of the end of the year.
— This story was originally posted at 8 p.m. and has been updated.