TAMPA — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has money and momentum on his side as he plows ahead into a series of February primary contests after a big win in Florida. Chief rival Newt Gingrich is fighting to recover from the significant loss and faces serious disadvantages in the next states to vote.
Talking unity like a nominee, Romney said Tuesday night he was "ready to lead this party and our nation" as he prepared to take his campaign to Minnesota and Nevada on Wednesday.
Gingrich, meanwhile, worked to convince supporters that the primary is still a two-person race. Vowing to stay the course, Gingrich said, "We are going to contest everyplace." He planned stops in three Nevada cities on Wednesday.
Nevada and Maine have caucuses on Feb. 4. Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri all hold contests on Feb. 7. Michigan and Arizona hold primaries on Feb. 28.
Romney begins February with formidable advantages in fundraising and organization. His campaign raised $24 million in the final months of 2011, dwarfing his competitors and leaving him with $20 million to fight a primary battle that's increasingly spread across many states.
The former Massachusetts governor has had staff and volunteers on the ground in upcoming states for months as he's prepared for a drawn-out fight for delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. Gingrich, meanwhile, doesn't have a strong ground game as he looks to contests in states that could prove problematic for him. And in a nomination fight so far defined by debates — typically a strong point for the former House speaker — he faces a three-week stretch without one. The candidates will next debate in Arizona on Feb. 22.
Romney won Nevada's caucuses in 2008, and a substantial Mormon population there could propel him to victory. Still, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has been organizing in the state for months and could pose a strong challenge. Romney's campaign is working to paint the nomination fight as a four-candidate contest, with Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum still in the mix. Santorum campaigned in Nevada and Colorado on Tuesday.
Romney's Florida win was a smart rebound from an earlier defeat and represented a major step toward the Republican presidential nomination. He'll receive Secret Service protection, beginning Wednesday, after his campaign requested it.
Tuesday night, he unleashed a strong attack on Democratic President Barack Obama and said the competitive fight for the GOP nomination "does not divide us, it prepares us" for the fall.
"Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time to get out of the way," Romney declared.
With 100 percent of Florida's precincts reporting, Romney had 46 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 32 percent. Santorum had 13 percent and Paul 7 percent; neither mounted a substantial effort in the state.
The winner-take-all primary was worth 50 Republican National Convention delegates, by far the most of any primary state so far.
But the bigger prize was precious political momentum in the race to pick an opponent for Obama in a nation struggling to recover from the deepest recession in decades.
That momentum belonged to Romney when he captured the New Hampshire primary three weeks ago, then swung stunningly to Gingrich when he countered with a South Carolina upset 11 days later.
Now it is back with Romney after a 10-day comeback that marked a change to more aggressive tactics, coupled with an efficient use of an overwhelming financial advantage to batter Gingrich in television commercials.
For the first time in the campaign, exit polls showed a gender gap in Romney's favor. He ran far better among women than Gingrich, winning just over half of their votes, to three in 10 for his rival.
Only about half of the women voters said they had a favorable view of the thrice-married Gingrich as a person, while about eight in 10 had a positive opinion of Romney.
As in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, about half of Florida primary voters said the most important factor for them was backing a candidate who can defeat Obama in November, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks.
Not surprisingly, in a state with an unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent, about two-thirds of voters said the economy was their top issue. More than eight in 10 said they were falling behind or just keeping up. And half said home foreclosures have been a major problem in their communities.
Those issues are also likely to drive voters in Nevada, the state with the highest unemployment rate.