TAMPA, Florida: Mitt Romney won the pivotal Republican primary in Florida on Tuesday, thrashing Newt Gingrich and taking a big step toward becoming his party's challenger to President Barack Obama.
With his win, Romney has recovered the political momentum he had lost after Gingrich's victory in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Florida was by far the largest of the first four nominating contests.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, vowed to fight on. He has twice before bounced back after his campaign appeared dead. But recovering from Tuesday's loss could be especially difficult. Romney has a huge advantage in money and organization. The pace of the campaign will slow in February and the contests include those in Michigan and Nevada, states where Romney is heavily favored.
Romney won almost half the votes in a four-person race. That damages Gingrich's oft-stated contention that the voters who oppose Romney outnumber those who favor him.
Returns from 98 percent of Florida's precincts showed Romney with 46 percent of the vote, to Gingrich's 32 percent.
The win gives Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, all 50 of Florida's delegates to the Republican National Convention in late August in Tampa, Florida. Romney now has 87 to Gingrich's 26. A candidate will need 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.
Romney, in remarks to cheering supporters, was talking party unity like the presumptive nominee. He said he was ready "to lead this party and our nation."
"Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time to get out of the way," he said.
Gingrich stressed that most states have yet to vote, as he addressed supporters with a sign on his podium reading "46 States to go."
"We are going to contest everyplace," he said.
Two longshot candidates, former Sen. Rick Santorum and congressman Ron Paul, remain in the Republican race, but they conceded Florida to their rivals and were campaigning outside the state Tuesday. In Florida, Santorum had 13 percent and Paul 7 percent.
Romney has been the front-runner for most of the Republican campaign even as a series of challengers have soared in the polls, only to quickly fade. A former CEO of a private equity firm, Romney has touted his business experience as he casts himself as the candidate most likely to defeat Obama in an election in which jobs and the economy are the big issues.
He narrowly lost the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, to Santorum in a race so close that he was initially declared the winner. He then easily won in New Hampshire.
But Gingrich countered with the upset victory in South Carolina. He portrayed himself as an authentic conservative, while pointing to Romney's shifting views on abortion and gay rights. Gingrich's fiery attacks on Obama and America's media "elite" struck a chord with voters, even as much of the Republican establishment worried the former House speaker was too erratic to become the party's nominee.
Florida, though, was a tougher state for Gingrich. Voters are more diverse than in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states. The vast size of the state and the variety of media markets make advertising campaigns more important.
Romney and Restore our Future, an outside group supporting him, outspent Gingrich and his outside organization, by about $15.5 million to $3.3 million, an advantage of nearly 5-1.
Romney also shifted tactics. He shed his reluctance to attack Gingrich, unleashing hard-hitting ads on television, sharpening his performance in a pair of debates and deploying surrogates to the edges of Gingrich's own campaign appearances, all in hopes of unnerving him.
Gingrich responded by assailing Romney as a man incapable of telling the truth. He sought the support of evangelicals and small-government tea party advocates, running as the antiestablishment insurgent of the party he once helped lead.
Florida will be especially important in the November presidential election, which is essentially a series of simultaneous state-by-state votes. With many states solidly Republican or Democratic, Florida is one of a few unpredictable swing states that will likely determine the winner.
With Florida's unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent, about two-thirds of voters there said the economy was their top issue, according to exit poll results conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks. More than 8 in 10 said they were falling behind or just keeping up. And half said that home foreclosures have been a major problem in their communities.