Former Massachusetts governor comfortably takes victory in largest state to hold a primary so far, cementing his position.
Mitt Romney takes Florida primary to become Republican to beat
MIAMI // Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has regained his mantle as the Republican presidential hopeful to beat with a comfortable victory in Florida, the largest state yet to hold a primary.
With 95 per cent of votes counted late on Tuesday, Mr Romney had taken 46 per cent of the votes, well ahead of Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the House of Representatives, at 32. The margin of victory means whatever momentum Mr Gingrich built from his upset victory in South Carolina, the previous state to have a primary, has shuddered to a halt.
Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, and Ron Paul, the Texas representative, came in third at 13 per cent and fourth at seven per cent respectively. Neither shows any sign of wanting to quit the race, however, even if both had effectively by-passed Florida, with all Florida's 50 delegates going only to the winner.
Mr Romney has now secured 84 delegates, Mr Gingrich, 27, Mr Paul 10 and Mr Santorum has eight. A candidate must secure 1,144 out of 2,288 delegates to win the party nomination.
In his victory speech from Tampa, Mr Romney struck an imperious note. Having spent the past 10 days focusing the considerable means at his campaign's disposal at the threat posed by Mr Gingrich, Mr Romney last night refocused his attention back to Barack Obama, whom he hopes to challenge for the presidency in November.
He took Mr Obama to task for failing turning the US economy around and said more people had lost their jobs and houses than under any other candidate.
"My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity," he told hundreds of supporters chanting his name.
He blamed the president for undermining America's position in the world and said Mr Obama wanted to shrink the US military because he believes "our role as leader of the world is a thing of the past".
"I will insist on a military so powerful no one would ever think of challenging it."
Mr Romney also made a point to reach out to conservative voters, promising to repeal Mr Obama's health care law, so unpopular among Republicans, and vowing to return to an era "when the White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe's become."
In Orlando, meanwhile, Mr Gingrich appeared unbowed. Picking up on themes that have recurred in his campaign so far, he lashed out at the "elite media" and said he would contest every remaining race.
He promised, referencing Abraham Lincoln, to have "people power defeat money power", a reference to the greater financial muscle of Mr Romney, whom he didn't congratulate on his victory.
He also spent a large part of his speech talking about what he would do on his first day in office. In his first two hours in office, he said, he would, among other things, repeal Mr Obama's health care reforms, approve the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada and move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
He also tried to reassert his credentials as the only serious alternative to Mr Romney.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate."
But in Nevada, where he has already started preparing for the next primary on February 4, Mr Santorum took aim back at Mr Gingrich. Pitching himself as the alternative to Mr Romney, he said the Florida result showed that he was the only "electable conservative" left in the race.
"Newt Gingrich had his shot and couldn't deliver in Florida. I think [people] will begin to look for a different conservative."
Also in Nevada campaigning, Mr Paul told a typically boisterous crowd that what mattered was the number of delegates and that he was in it until the end. Focusing much of his speech on what he said was America‚s "lousy foreign policy", Mr Paul reminded his audience that all "great nations go down" that way.
"We need to wise up, spend our money wisely and don't pretend we can tell other people how to live."