TAMPA — Mitt Romney scored a blowout in Florida's presidential primary Tuesday, steadying a campaign that was jarred by a loss in South Carolina just 10 days earlier and again staking his claim to the Republican nomination.
Called seconds after the final Florida polls closed at 8 p.m. in the Panhandle, the victory represented a transformed candidacy built on a more focused message and a relentlessly negative, multi- million-dollar ad campaign against rival Newt Gingrich.
Romney now heads to Nevada as the favorite for Saturday's caucuses and a scattering of other February contests that increase the odds against Gingrich, 68, building the grass roots coalition needed to rise from defeat yet again.
In Tampa, Romney exulted before hundreds of supporters and quickly placed a marker beyond the primaries.
"Three years ago this week, a newly elected President (Barack) Obama faced the American people and he said, 'Look, if I can't turn this economy around in three years, I'll be looking at a one-term proposition,' " Romney said. "And we're here to collect!"
"I stand ready to lead this party and to lead this nation," said Romney, 64.
A defiant Gingrich, who spent the past week trying to foment conservative unease with Romney and build on his double-digit victory in South Carolina, vowed to continue his fight. "We're going to contest every place and we are going to win," he said in Orlando. When he finished speaking, he boarded a plane for Nevada.
Rick Santorum, 53, and Ron Paul, 76, finished third and fourth respectively in Florida. Santorum began TV advertising in Nevada and Colorado on Tuesday, signaling his pledge to continue. Paul bypassed campaigning in Florida altogether to focus on other states.
It's certain someone will challenge the winner-take-all status of Florida's contest, meaning Romney will have to fight to hold onto the state's 50 delegates, a number already cut in half due to the decision to move up the primary in violation of national Republican rules.
But Romney's victory in the biggest primary state so far and his second win out of the first four contests gives him not just the aura of inevitability but an increasingly tight fist on the nomination.
In Florida's closed primary, Romney won over a diverse array of Republicans and demonstrated that his organization has the muscle to take on Obama in the general election. More voters participated in Florida's primary than the first three nominating states combined.
He drew heavily from women, older voters and Hispanics, dominating the state's populated counties, while Gingrich took the more conservative Panhandle.
Time and again Tuesday, GOP voters said they thought Romney is the strongest general election candidate, even if they liked another.
Exit polls showed nearly half of voters considered electability most important. The economy was also high atop Florida voters' concerns, and Romney has made his business acumen the centerpiece of his campaign.
"I would have gone with a more conservative candidate, but I think Romney will be forced to not go to the mushy middle too much. The base won't let him get away with that," Lindsey Porter, a 52-year-old lawyer from St. Petersburg, said after voting for Romney.
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Gingrich came into Florida fresh off his stunning victory in South Carolina, where he raised questions about Romney's business ethics and appealed to evangelicals. He shot atop the polls in Florida but never capitalized.
During a debate last week in Tampa, Gingrich dropped his aggressive style and then was outmatched by Romney in a second debate Thursday in Jacksonville. Gingrich later said he was trying not to appear rattled and feed into Romney's portrayal of him as an erratic bomb thrower. But on TV, he came across as anemic.
Romney's aggressive debate performances were part of a post-South Carolina retooling. He even brought in a debate coach who had worked for former candidate Michele Bachmann.
Romney did more "message" events, like a housing roundtable in Tampa and a visit to a neighborhood in Fort Myers that was dotted with foreclosed homes — a backdrop that called attention to Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac but also the bleak economy that Romney says Obama has failed to fix (though it has slowly improved nationally and in Florida).
Romney also targeted absentee and early voters better than his rivals, banking an advantage that could have been critical had Gingrich kept the primary competitive. Before polls opened Tuesday, at least 650,000 Floridians had voted.
But Romney's most effective weapon may have been his war chest. He and his allies unleashed a wave of negative TV ads against Gingrich. By midweek, they had run 13,000 ad spots to Gingrich's 200. Spending for Romney outmatched Gingrich 5 to 1.
"In South Carolina, we were inundated with negative attacks," said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. "We're not complaining about that, but we're not going to sit still for it either. In Florida, you saw a more aggressive Mitt Romney fighting back."
Gingrich's loss in Florida could also be explained through the crowds that accompanied him on his 10-day race through the state. He drew 75 people to a Tampa event for young Republicans in September. Last week, he spoke to more than 4,000 supporters in a Sarasota airport hangar.
By Monday, however, the people and their enthusiasm were missing. A fly-around the day before the primary drew a few hundred supporters at each stop. By Tuesday, Gingrich conceded his defeat in an Orlando ballroom that was more than half empty.
Gingrich, who spoke from a lectern that carried the message "46 states to go," cast Florida as a clarifier.
"It is now clear this will now be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," he said.
More clear is the work Gingrich has left to do to remain viable as the primary fight moves on. In Florida, he was forced to walk away from attacks linking Romney's staff to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist after Sen. Marco Rubio said they were out of bounds. And Gingrich had to pull a Spanish-language radio advertisement declaring Romney "anti-immigrant" amid criticism from both Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
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Exit polls show Gingrich won over the voters who described themselves as deeply conservative, which no doubt encouraged him to go on.
"Gingrich is not a lovable teddy bear," said Marilyn Cisek, 75, of St. Petersburg, who was undecided until the last minute. "He's a tough guy and he stands up to people and that's why I like him."
"Mitt Romney spent a lot of money and has been campaigning here for seven years," said Gingrich supporter Nancy Acevedo in Orlando. "But we've got 46 states to go. We're still fighting."
The ugliness of the race was on the minds of many voters, some who worry it could aid Democrats. Romney alluded to the nasty tenor of the race in his victory speech, but tried to counter that perception.
"A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us," he said. "And 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."
Some voters still felt uneasy about their choices.
Stanley Gray, 56, of Tampa said he couldn't decide whom to vote for until he was driving to the polling place.
"This is probably one of the most uncomfortable times I've ever voted in my life," he said. "None of them really 'Oh, wow' me. It just really bothers me."
Gray said he voted for Santorum, calling him "the best horse in the glue factory."
Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Marissa Lang, Jodie Tillman and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.