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 Manatee County, Romney took 48 percent of the vote, followed by Gingrich with 27 percent. Rick Santorum had 16 percent.
With all 124 precincts reporting across Manatee County, the results were:
- Mitt Romney, 18,589
- Newt Gingrich, 10,617
- Rick Santorum, 6,314
- Ron Paul, 2,482
- Rick Perry, 204
- Jon Huntsman, 203
- Michelle Bachmann, 193
- Herman Cain, 76
- Gary Johnson, 37
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 .
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.
Stay with Patch for complete local election results.