TAMPA, Florida – Mitt Romney trounced main rival Newt Gingrich in Florida's primary on Tuesday, putting himself in a commanding position to win the Republican nomination and take on President Barack Obama.
The margin of victory – 47 per cent to 32 per cent with more than three-quarters of the votes counted – dealt a bitter blow to former House speaker Gingrich, who faces a Herculean task to turn the race around.
Gingrich, 68, shocked the party establishment when he thumped Romney, 64, in South Carolina earlier this month, but his support sank fast in the larger and more diverse state of Florida and Romney now has all the momentum.
Romney's thumping win in the Sunshine State demonstrated his strength in a key general election battleground, and in his victory speech in a Tampa ballroom, he took firm aim at Obama.
"Well Mr President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow, and now it's time for you to get out of the way," he said, to chants of "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!"
"President Obama wants to fundamentally transform America and make it something perhaps we wouldn't recognise. I want to restore to America the values and principles that made us the hope of the Earth."
The victor fired a warning shot at Democrats who have been salivating over the increasingly caustic tone of the Republican campaign – marked in Florida by the constant stream of personal attacks flying between Romney and Gingrich.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us and we will win,"" Romney said. "When we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America."
Gingrich acknowledged he had faced an uphill battle in Florida, but promised to wage a long-haul battle for the nomination, taking the fight all the way to the party convention in August when the nominee will ultimately be crowned.
"I think ultimately it's going to come down to a conservative versus Massachusetts moderate primary fight across the whole country," he said.
Gingrich has urged fellow conservative Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses but has struggled since and trailed a distant third in Florida, to drop out of the race.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and libertarian-leaning Texas congressman Ron Paul, fourth and last in Florida, did little campaigning here, preferring to concentrate their limited resources on other states.
The economy seemed to be on the minds of many voters in Florida, including businessman Paul Jackson, who said he voted for Romney.
"I voted for him because I think he has the best chance of beating the president – the current president. I don't agree with everything that he stands for, but I need to see a change that satisfied my selfish needs as a small business owner," he said.
Florida has been badly hit by the "Great Recession" wrought by the 2008 financial crisis – unemployment is close to 10 per cent and the state was at the epicenter of the housing bubble.
Many residents have seen their homes repossessed or have mortgages now worth more than the value of their homes.
After the South Carolina setback, Romney used his much deeper campaign war chest to unleash an unrelenting barrage of negative ads in Florida.
Hitting Gingrich on ethics, Romney also frequently mentioned the former speaker's work as a highly paid consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac – which is seen by some as complicit in the housing meltdown of 2008.
Romney said Tuesday that the defeat in South Carolina had helped steel his spine and toughen his resolve, and in recent days he appeared more relaxed and self-assured on the campaign trail.
The usually stiff candidate even broke into song on the eve of the vote, warbling several bars of the patriotic anthem "America the Beautiful" at one event as the crowd sang along.
Gingrich meanwhile has vowed a long and bitter fight on, accusing his rival, one of the wealthiest individuals to ever seek the presidency, of trying to spend his way to the White House.
But with seven states voting in the next four weeks, Romney's deep pockets and political organisation could play a key role as the candidates battle on multiple fronts.
Romney won five of those seven states in 2008, despite losing the eventual nomination to Senator John McCain. The next contests will take place in Nevada and Maine on Saturday.AFP