The two other candidates in the race, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), had already pulled up stakes in the Sunshine State, where new polls showed Romney opening as much as a 20-point lead over Gingrich.
At the same time, at least 15 percent of Florida’s registered Republican voters had already cast their ballots before primary day. More than 630,000 voted early or returned absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office. A Suffolk University-7News poll found that Romney led Gingrich 55 percent to 24 percent among early voters.
That shifted some of the focus of the primary campaign toward Nevada, where the four contenders will gather this week. Even as Romney and Gingrich dueled in Florida until the final hours, their advisers described plans for a prolonged contest, with Gingrich promising to take the fight all the way to the Republican National Convention and Romney pledging to wage a strong battle in each state.
“I don’t think you can ever count on a state being in your corner,” Romney told reporters. “I think people look at what happens in the give-and-take of a campaign, and what the messages are that you’re connecting with, and hopefully that will work in my favor. Time will tell.”
For Romney, who had once hoped to lock up the nomination with a victory in Florida, the vote now marks a milestone — but not a conclusion.
Florida is the largest state so far this year to hold a primary, and 50 delegates are at stake in a winner-take-all format. At least 1,114 delegates are needed to secure the nomination at the Republican convention in Tampa in August.
From Florida, the campaign’s footprint will expand rapidly. Contests in Maine and Nevada on Saturday, and in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7 will test the candidates’ organizational muscle and financial fortitude.
Romney hopes to progress rapidly toward the nomination by powering through each state. His aides have announced plans to fly to Minnesota on Wednesday before arriving in Las Vegas for a rally that night.
Gingrich said his campaign is only getting started. With an eye toward the next contest, he is scheduled to leave Florida on Tuesday for Nevada, where his strategy is to try to galvanize conservative grass-roots voters — the part of the electorate that nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle over an establishment front-runner in the 2010 Senate race in Nevada.