ORLANDO, Fla. — Mitt Romney's victory Tuesday in Florida’s presidential primary — the first test of electoral strength in a big, diverse state this year — establishes him firmly as the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination.
Several national news organizations projected Romney as the winner immediately after Florida's polls closed. With 81 percent of the vote counted, Romney had 47 percent, Newt Gingrich had 32 percent, Rick Santorum had 13 percent and Ron Paul had 7 percent.
Yet even as the former Massachusetts governor rolled up an apparent double-digit victory in the Sunshine State, he can't claim the prize yet. He probably is at least five weeks away from becoming the consensus nominee, and perhaps two months or more from collecting the 1,144 convention delegates he needs to lock up victory.
His three major rivals vow to wage spirited campaigns in upcoming states, and if conservatives were to rally around a single candidate, Romney could face a prolonged battle that could weaken him in November’s general election.
But at the moment, almost everything is breaking his way — and the path forward seems to favor him. The next test comes Saturday in Nevada, which Romney won easily in 2008. The rest of February features caucuses and primaries in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. Romney won each four years ago, and he’s a strong favorite in each again.
Arizona has a primary Feb. 28; Romney lost it in 2008 to John McCain, the state's senior senator and eventual nominee. This year, McCain is backing Romney.
Romney has far more money and organizational strength than any rival. His Florida campaign demonstrated an ability to rebound quickly from a staggering loss 10 days earlier in South Carolina to Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives. Romney pivoted from running largely against President Barack Obama to some old-fashioned bashing of the enemy before him, Gingrich. It worked.
Romney's strength is no surprise to seasoned analysts.
"The Romney nomination has been very likely all along," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Romney now has a different challenge: vanquish his remaining rivals as quickly as possible, so that any doubts about him they raise in voters' minds can be forgotten.
"The longer this goes on, the more difficulty Romney faces," Sabato said.
The primary and caucus season stretches until the end of June. Gingrich, Texas Rep. Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum say they’ll battle on.
Romney declared victory before a raucous crowd in Tampa. He warned watching Democrats that "a competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us — and we will win."
He criticized President Barack Obama at length, and cited his own leadership experience as a business executive, a rescuer of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and a state governor.
"I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation," he said. “My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity.”
A defiant Gingrich took the stage at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, vowing to keep campaigning. He did not congratulate Romney, and said the vote in Florida made it clear that it's now a two-person race, "between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate."
Supporters held signs that read "46 states to go," and he said that was for the "elite media" that once counted him down and out.
"We are going to contest every place and we're going to win and we will be the nominee in Tampa in August." Tampa will host the Republican National Convention.
Remember, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said, "the media-picked front-runner hasn't broken 50 percent yet," citing Romney's showings in the year's first three elections. "That leaves a lot of math out there for the conservative side of the party to pick up, which is how we'll stay competitive in the nomination."
Hammond predicted that the race will go "into the spring, because we will continue to bring in delegates. We will continue to bring in large amounts of support. As long as the tea party supporters keep coming our way, we're going to be able to do very well."
Fifty delegates were at stake in Florida's winner-take-all primary. After Tuesday only about 5 percent of the 2,286 convention delegates will have been selected. Many coming contests will award delegates proportionately, meaning that each candidate gets delegates based on his percentage of the vote.
Still, Romney has money, local support and organization in each battleground; he had $19 million on hand at the start of January. Gingrich told Bloomberg News last weekend that he was down to $600,000.
Paul is thought to have enough organization to compete in the February caucus states, and he's been campaigning hard in Nevada. But he finished fourth in South Carolina and made virtually no effort in Florida, raising questions about his viability down the road.
Santorum abandoned his Florida effort over the weekend, traveling to the caucus states, hoping to exploit his strong ties to the evangelical Christian community. But he, too, is unable to match Romney's political infrastructure.
The best bet for a strong Romney challenge appears to be March 6, Super Tuesday, when 437 delegates are at stake in 10 states.
Gingrich, a former congressman from a Georgia district, probably will bank on doing well in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, all conservative states that Romney lost last time.
Romney can counter with muscle in the Western states that vote that day, as well as Vermont and his home state of Massachusetts. He also has an edge in the race for Virginia's 49 delegates that day, since Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot. Only Romney and Paul are on the Old Dominion’s ballot.
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