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.
“Newt Gingrich has established himself as the only conservative capable of defeating President Obama in the 2012 general election,” Martin Baker, the Gingrich campaign’s national political director, wrote in a memo to reporters Monday. “All of the money in the world can’t buy excitement or intensity.”
Paul and Santorum, trailing far behind in the Florida polls, have set their sights on February contests in smaller states, including Maine and Minnesota, where they think they could have stronger showings.
Romney aides said he will stay on the offensive in the coming weeks — not only with Gingrich, but also with Paul and Santorum. The Romney team considers Paul a particularly strong opponent in Nevada and Santorum in Minnesota, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.
“It’s not a two-person contest between Mitt and Newt Gingrich, no matter how much Newt may feel that way,” Fehrnstrom said, adding: “You’re not going to see Mitt Romney go into cruise control after Florida.”
Romney opened his first of three rallies Monday with an increasingly familiar attack. Just 30 seconds into his remarks at a Jacksonville construction equipment warehouse, he assailed Gingrich over his work with mortgage giant Freddie Mac and tried to link him to Florida’s housing crisis.
Romney asked a few hundred supporters to raise their hands if they have been affected by the crisis or know someone who has. Scores of hands shot up. “Wow,” he said, “this is what I see all over this state.”
At that, he talked about Gingrich’s work as a consultant for the federally subsidized company. “The idea that someone running for president was getting paid by Freddie Mac while that was going on — $1.6 million — that just irks people,” Romney said. “I think that’s the real reason why Speaker Gingrich has had such a hard time.”
One supporter interrupted Romney’s speech to say of Gingrich: “Send him to the moon!” Romney then poked fun at Gingrich’s ambitious space agenda. “The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not on the top of my mind,” he said.
Gingrich, meanwhile, sought to cast fresh doubt about Romney’s candidacy among Florida’s Jewish voters, accusing him of reducing kosher meals for the poor when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“For $5 a day, he said, ‘No, you can’t follow your religious beliefs,’ ” Gingrich said at a rally in a Tampa airplane hanger. One supporter replied: “Newt-ron bomb! Newt-ron bomb!”
Gardner reported from Tampa.