Tampa: Mitt Romney cruised to a blowout victory in Florida's Republican US presidential primary on Tuesday that put him back in front in the fight for his party's nomination to face President Barack Obama and left chief rival Newt Gingrich reeling but vowing to fight on.
With 70 percent of the vote counted, Romney had 47 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 32 percent in the largest of the four Republican presidential nominating contests so far this year.
U.S. television networks projected Romney as the winner just as the last polls closed in Florida.
The victory enabled Romney, the wealthy former Massachusetts governor and private equity firm executive, to rebound from his decisive loss to Gingrich in the January 21 South Carolina primary.
The well-funded and well-organized Romney surged in opinion polls in Florida after aggressively pressing Gingrich in two debates and pounding him with negative advertising.
The campaign for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 election now tilts in Romney's favor with seven contests in February in which he could win or do well, starting with Nevada on Saturday.
The Florida victory also may widen a rift between establishment Republicans who back Romney and conservative voters who favor Gingrich, a dynamic that could complicate the party's effort to oust Obama in November.
"As this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching, and they like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak," Romney told a jubilant crowd in his victory speech in which he focused on Obama after two weeks of clobbering Gingrich.
"But I've got news for them. A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win," Romney added.
The Florida primary was the fourth in the series of state-by-state contests to pick the Republican nominee. Romney has triumphed in two of the first four contests, having also won in New Hampshire and coming in second in Iowa and South Carolina.
Romney was helped by the millions of dollars in negative television ads against Gingrich that undermined the argument advanced by the former speaker of the House of Representatives that he is the conservative heir to Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Gingrich fought back with ads of his own, castigating Romney as a party insider and elite friend of Wall Street - and called him "for all practical purposes a liberal." But Gingrich did not have the same amount of money as Romney, who had used a similar advertising spree to cut Gingrich down to size in Iowa.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich told his supporters after the primary.
The next contest is the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, followed next Tuesday by caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri.
First Published: Wednesday, February 01, 2012, 08:42