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NAPLES — Mitt Romney performed even better in Southwest Florida this year than he did in the 2008 GOP primary, sweeping up solid majorities of the hotly contested Collier and Lee county vote.
In Collier County, Romney won 57 percent of the votes, while his top rival, Newt Gingrich, won nearly 26 percent. Romney slammed competitors in Lee County, too, picking up 48 percent of the votes. Gingrich won about 31 percent there.
“He kicked butt,” said Naples Mayor-elect John Sorey, who led Romney’s Collier campaign. “I think it’s over.”
Other Republicans, especially those opposed to the former Massachusetts governor, disagreed the race for the GOP presidential nomination is over. Tuesday’s primary election in Florida was the fourth in a series of statewide battles running into the summer.
Gingrich is “going all the way to the (Republican National) Convention,” said Naples City Councilman Sam Saad, co-chair of Gingrich’s Collier effort. “It’s four primaries out of 50.”
While several thousand in Southwest Florida voted early or by absentee, thousands more streamed into polling places Tuesday.
Romney and Gingrich were the clear leaders in the area, but many stuck with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. A few hundred even voted for candidates who have suspended their campaigns. Ninety people, for example, voted for businessman Herman Cain in Collier County.
Four years ago, Southwest Florida was among the kindest regions to Romney. He garnered 44 percent in Collier that year and 40 percent in Lee, firmly beating John McCain here, though McCain won the state and the nomination. McCain won 29 percent of the vote in Collier and 33 percent in Lee in 2008.
Several voters interviewed by the Daily News on Tuesday, no matter whom they voted for, said they were tired of negative attack ads. Many of those who said they voted for Santorum credited the bickering between Romney and Gingrich for their choice.
Before results came in Tuesday night, Gingrich supporters seemed undeterred by predictions that the former House Speaker would lose.
Bob Schroeder, 75, of North Naples, said Gingrich is the only one who can top President Barack Obama in increasingly influential televised debates.
“I think it’s going to be a tough debate, and you really need somebody who can go down and fight in the gutter,” Schroeder said. “I’m not sure Romney can do that. Gingrich is hungry.”
His wife, Alice Schroeder, took exception. She voted for Romney, but didn’t like it. She would have voted for Santorum but knew he couldn’t win.
“I think (Romney and Gingrich) have a lot of baggage, and I didn’t vote with my heart,” Alice Schroeder said, adding that “their ads have been horrific. Too negative.”
In Collier, Romney performed better along the coast, in U.S. Rep. Connie Mack’s District 14, than he did inland, in congressional District 25 represented by David Rivera. In District 14, Romney took 59 percent of the vote, more than doubling the percentage of votes won by Gingrich.
In District 25, the difference between the two was 15 percentage points.
Romney “is well-liked in this area already, and then of course you’ve got the congressman, Connie Mack, campaigning for him,” said Frank Schwerin, chairman of the Collier County Republican Executive Committee.
Mack campaigned intensively for Romney during the past week, since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
Romney has solidified his frontrunner status, taking all 50 of Florida’s delegates, but with most of the candidates looking ahead to the next states, the race will continue.
“This is a marathon,” said Gary Lee, chairman of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee. “This is not going to be over soon.”
With almost all precincts reporting, Collier County joined the rest of Florida in going for Mitt Romney, by a big margin.
The western District 14 portion of the county went more solidly for the former Massachusetts governor than did the eastern, rural part of the county in U.S. Rep. David Rivera’s District 25.
Romney won about 60 percent of the Republican vote in the Collier part of District 14. Gingrich won 25 percent, and the other candidates all received 11 percent or less in that district.
Romney “is well-liked in this area already, and then of course you’ve got the congressman, Connie Mack, campaigning for him,” said Frank Schwerin, the chairman of the Collier County Republican Executive Committee.
Romney was also strong in Lee County on Tuesday, taking 47 percent of the vote. In Lee County, Newt Gingrich won 31 percent of the Republican vote. Rick Santorum won 15 percent, and Ron Paul won 6 percent.
Return to naplesnews.com later for more on this developing story