Mitt Romney won the Florida Presidential Preference Primary on Tuesday, earning the state's 50 delegates and distancing himself from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the Republican front-runner for 2012.
The Associated Press projected Romney's commanding victory shortly after 8 p.m., when the final polls closed in Florida's Panhandle.
The former Massachusetts governor had taken 46 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Gingrich after returns from 99 percent of the polls were in. Rick Santorum had 13 percent, and Ron Paul 7 percent.
"Florida, you're the best," a victorious Romney told a crowd gathered at his at the downtown Tampa Convention Center.
In Pinellas County, Romney took 49 percent of the vote, more than double his nearest rival, Gingrich, with 24 percent. Rick Santorum came in third, with 14.85 percent.
Here are the totals, with all precincts reporting:
- Mitt Romney, 50,762
- Newt Gingrich, 24,491
- Rick Santorum, 15,450
- Ron Paul, 10,778
- Jon Huntsman, 949
- Rick Perry, 708
- Michele Bachmann, 349
- Herman Cain, 230
- Gary Johnson, 146
Across Pinellas County, 114,787 ballots were cast; slightly more than 40 percent of registered Republicans voted.
"As a supporter of Mitt Romney, I'm very happy not only that he won this important primary, but even happier he won by such a large margin," said state Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Palm Harbor. "This shows that Republicans have finally chosen their candidate to beat President Obama and retake the White House."
Reaction from Pinellas Republicans Is Mixed
More than 100 diehard Republicans packed into in Clearwater on Tuesday night to watch the primary returns.
The flat screens above the bar normally turned to the best sports games of the night had Fox News blaring as Romney was declared the winner of the primary.
When the check was marked next to Romney’s name, the GOP watch party had a soft round of applause and boos in the crowd.
One of those disappointed with Tuesday night’s results was Pinellas County Newt Gingrich campaign co-chair Eileen Blackmer.
She said Tuesday the Pinellas campaign started to realize that a win in Florida was not probable.
“I’m a little disappointed with the margin, however,” Blackmer said Tuesday night. “But in the end, Florida really doesn’t mean anything.
“We will go on to another state. We can still work, make phone calls for Newt from Pinellas County,” Blackmer said of the Pinellas County Gingrich campaign.
St. Petersburg resident and Gingrich supporter Steven Kanoop echoed Blackmer’s comments. “I’m a little disappointed; I’m a Gingrich guy,” he said. “But I’m a Republican, so I would still vote for Romney if he’s the nominee.”
Kris Gionet of Gulfport, a Pinellas Patriots organizer who helped coordinate Tuesday's event, called for Republicans to unify behind the eventual nominee.
"It's a fundamental decision we are going to make," Gionet said. "Are we going to go for a government of more regulation and more involvement in our daily lives? Or are we going to choose a government with less regulation? ... The decision is not related to a political party."
For Largo resident Kevin Thornhill, a member of Pinellas Patriots, the hope was improved economic conditions.
"We are conservatives who believe in small government. The taxpayers are paying enough already," Thornhill said.
Pinellas County Commission candidate Buck Walz said he was happy with Tuesday night’s results.
“I think the right guy won,” he said. “I was back and forth between Gingrich and Romney, but after watching the debates and doing research, I went with Romney. I think Romney has honed skills and has what it takes to defeat Obama in November.”
The Importance of Florida
Statewide, Gingrich was projected to take second place, with Santorum placing third and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in fourth. The Huffington Post reported that Gingrich had pledged to continue his campaign, no matter his finish in Florida.
Political writer Peter Schorsch, who edits the statewide political blog Saint Petersblog, underscored the importance of Florida's early primary. Schorsch wrote it could be a bellwether for the nation:
"Republican leaders are saying that the contest could decide which one of the candidates wins the nomination — just what legislators wanted when they set up a committee last year that upended the GOP's plans for a carefully orchestrated voting calendar."
The "Interstate 4 corridor" and the Tampa Bay area in particular had been prime territory for some of the candidates' campaigns in the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote.
Romney, who established a campaign headquarters in South Tampa, made visits and and held a at the downtown convention center.
Gingrich attended , and in Tampa, along.
The win in Florida would have been even bigger for Romney, but the state was penalized by the Republican National Committee for moving up its primary date, getting stripped of half of its 99 delegates.
Florida is expected to again be a battleground state in the 2012 general election. In 2008, Barack Obama took 50 percent of the vote, narrowly edging Republican Sen. John McCain's 48 percent.
Romney has taken 84 delegates — but he needs a total of 1,144 to win the Republican nomination.
Now the campaign trail shifts to Nevada and Maine for their caucuses Feb. 4.
Linda Hersey, Sunde Farquhar and Melissa Lattman contributed to this report.