Mitt Romney's supporters at the Tampa Convention Centre were so confident their candidate was going to win Tuesday night that they began a countdown until the moment the polls in Florida closed.
And they were right to be so confident.
Romney's double-digit win in the bitterly contested Florida Republican primary restored his status as the clear front-runner in the Republican presidential race, 10 days after Newt Gingrich's upset victory in South Carolina stunned Romney's well-financed and heavily favoured campaign.
With 96 per cent of polls reporting in Florida, the former Massachusetts governor reeled in 47 per cent of the votes, while Gingrich was far behind at 32 per cent.
In a succinct speech to the jubilant Tampa crowd, Romney thanked Floridians, praised his "able" competitors and vowed to unite Republicans to defeat Obama in November’s presidential elections.
The Democrats, Romney told the crowd, "like to comfort themselves that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak."
"A competitive campaign doesn’t divide us, it prepares us, and we will win," he vowed.
Romney also cited Obama's statement three years ago predicting he would be a one-term president if he wasn’t able to turn the economy around. "And we're here to collect," he said, a sound bite he has used several times during the campaign.
Shortly after Romney left the Tampa stage, a defiant Gingrich extinguished any Republican hope for a quick resolution to the nomination contest by telling supporters he still has "46 states to go."
Gingrich insists he'll be nominee
With the bitterly fought contest in Florida settled after weeks of personal attacks and a wave of negative advertising saturating the state’s airwaves, all eyes and ears turned to the second-place finisher Gingrich, who offered no congratulations to Romney on Tuesday night and insisted he himself would be the nominee.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich told supporters in Orlando, in an attempt to stoke lingering concerns among some of the party's right wing that Romney was not a legitimate conservative.
Gingrich, who has railed in recent weeks against the pro-Romney Republican establishment and the "elite" media, said he was certain he would win because he is running a "people’s campaign, not an establishment campaign [and] not a Wall Street campaign."
"We are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.… We're going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months."
Gingrich also focused on what he'd do during his first day in the Oval Office as president, despite his shellacking in Florida. One of his priorities would be the immediate approval of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.
"My message to the Canadian people is 'Don't build a pipeline to China, help is on the way," he said.
- Feb. 4: Nevada (caucus).
- Feb. 4-11: Maine (caucus).
- Feb. 7: Colorado (caucus); Minnesota (caucus); Missouri (primary).
- Feb. 28: Arizona (primary); Michigan (primary).
With the race swinging westward to Nevada's caucus on Saturday, the two other candidates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul, also vowed to stay in the race.
Santorum had 13 per cent, and Paul was at seven per cent. Neither Santorum or Paul invested much time or money into campaigning in the state, instead saving their relatively limited resources for western caucus states where their percentage of support could translate into more delegates.
Speaking in Las Vegas Tuesday night, Santorum said Gingrich "had his chance" to break out with conservative voters after the South Carolina victory — and couldn’t close the deal in Florida.
"The American public does not want to see two or three mud-wrestling matches in which everyone gets dirty," said Santorum, who previously scored a win over Romney in the only caucus state so far, in Iowa.
Is the Romney/Gingrich battle weakening the Republican Party? Have your say.
Citing a shoestring campaign could not compete financially in Florida, Santorum vowed to continue to press his case to voters that "there’s only one electable conservative in this race."
In Nevada, Paul told supporters he called Romney to congratulate him, but added he would be "seeing him soon in some caucus states."
"If enthusiasm wins elections, we win hands-down," he told the wildly cheering crowd.
The campaigns waged by Romney and Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, grew in intensity and nastiness as Florida's primary day approached.
The Romney campaign spent more than $15 million on an advertising blitz in Florida that pummeled Gingrich over his record as House Speaker in the 1990s and his post-political consulting career in Washington.
Gingrich shook the race with his surprise win in South Carolina on Jan. 21, but saw his momentum coming into the Florida contest blunted by an uncharacteristically shaky debate performance — and the sheer dominance of the Romney advertising juggernaut.
At the same time, Romney appeared to find his groove in Florida by hitting back at Gingrich on stage and on the state's airwaves, rather than saving his most pointed attacks for Obama.
Romney also ridiculed Gingrich's pledge to have a U.S. base on the surface of the moon by the end of his second term as president, accusing his rival of pandering to Florida's struggling Space Coast.
On the final day of the Florida campaign, Gingrich launched an automated-call campaign saying Romney, while Massachusetts governor, vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for seniors in nursing homes, a move the Romney campaign condemned as a "desperate" attempt to score a hit on the candidate.
And after 10 days of hard campaigning in a state bedevilled by plunging real estate prices and foreclosures, neither candidate offered a solution to those problems.
Terry Martin, a Romney supporter from Tampa, told CBC News that she found Gingrich's attacks "horrible" and wanted him to leave the race to spare the likely nominee and the party from further damage.
"It's disgusting what he's said after saying he'd stay positive," Martin said. "Romney's a good man and all Newt's doing is tearing him down.
But at a Gingrich appearance in Celebration on Tuesday, Gingrich supporter Steve Gillespie told CBC News he approves of the former House speaker's "combative" nature and defence of conservative positions on the federal debt.
"We are literally selling ourselves into financial slavery and it’s time to send somebody to Washington who's not going to play games, not going to worry about stepping on people’s toes, but they’re going to take action," said Gillespie, 53, a real estate agent. "It's time for us to send a Gen. [George]
Patton there, not someone who’s just going to go along to get along."
His wife Sue Gillespie, 53, a children's author, added Gingrich "knows how to cut through those games" played in the capital.
When asked whether they would back Romney if he wins the nomination over Gingrich, the Gillespies said they remain unconvinced of Romney's conservative credentials and his commitment to cutting government spending.
"Will I be a good soldier and go along and vote for Romney?" Steve Gillespie pondered.
"I love the Republican Party. I have a 24-year-old son named Reagan. But I would have to look at who is still in the race, and I would look at a third-party candidate at that point."