With his impressive Florida win on Tuesday, Mitt Romney has re-established himself as the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But he continues to face fervent opposition from some quarters, and a number of hurdles remain before he can claim the nomination.
Romney took just over 46 percent of the vote, while second-place finisher Newt Gingrich had nearly 32 percent.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had about 13 percent, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 7 percent.
By taking the largest state to vote so far by a significant margin, Romney has recovered from Gingrich's decisive Jan. 21 win in South Carolina. But Gingrich vows to press on — as do Santorum and Paul.
The race will continue for an additional "six to eight months," Gingrich told ABC News on Tuesday — "unless Romney drops out earlier."
Such bold claims aside, the calendar appears to favor Romney, at least in the short term. Several states will hold caucuses and primaries in February. In many cases, they appear to offer favorable terrain for the former Massachusetts governor.
"It will be awful nice to greet him tomorrow after just such a profound and broad victory in Florida," says Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, Romney's campaign chairman in the state. "Certainly it galvanizes the troops here."
How Romney Won Florida
After suffering a serious setback in South Carolina, Romney kept strongly on offense against Gingrich for more than a week, pummeling him with personal attacks and an ad campaign that has been estimated at five times the size of what Gingrich could muster.
Romney had sought to remain above the fray through much of the primary season, aiming most of his criticism toward President Obama rather than his Republican rivals. But Romney went directly and strongly after Gingrich through ads, robocalls and his own public statements.
Gingrich complained that Romney had been "relentlessly negative" and "blatantly dishonest." But he was never able to regain momentum following his poorly received performances in a pair of Florida debates last week.
Despite Romney's big margin, Gingrich remained defiant. He gave his remarks after the vote on Tuesday from behind a placard that read, "46 States to Go."
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich said. "The voters of Florida really made that clear."
Ethics And Early Voting
It wasn't just the attacks on Gingrich that were effective, but their sequencing, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Romney was able to raise questions about Gingrich's status as a Washington "influence peddler," then unleash a devastating ad showing vintage footage of NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw recounting the House vote in 1997 to reprimand him on ethics charges.
"There is one glaring Achilles' heel in Gingrich that has strongly been pointed out," says Pete Dunbar, a longtime Republican strategist and campaign consultant in Florida who is not working for any of the presidential candidates.
"When you look back at the personal behavior and the ethics sanction that was imposed on him by his own body, that has had a major impact," Dunbar says.
Romney's organizational strength also helped him push potential supporters who took advantage of the state's early and absentee voting procedures.
As was the case following earlier contests, Romney's victory speech in Tampa was marked by his sharp criticism of Obama.
"President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy," Romney said. "I will make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for innovators and for job creators. And unlike the other people running for president, I know how to do that."
What Florida May Portend
Florida marks a break in several important respects from earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Florida was the first state to allow only registered Republican voters to participate in its nominating contest. It's also the first "winner take all" state, allocating all of its delegates to the national GOP convention to the primary winner (although that decision may well be challenged further down the road).
Romney hopes the big boost he will receive from his convincing victory will ease his path as the contest spreads to other states.
Attention quickly will shift to caucuses on Saturday in Nevada and Maine. Romney easily won Nevada's first-in-the-West caucuses in 2008 and his momentum out of Florida should give him a boost there.
Nevada polls had been showing some momentum for Gingrich, says Chuck Muth, a prominent conservative activist in the state who has been advising a superPAC that supports Gingrich.
But the blowout for Romney in Florida takes a lot of the wind out of Gingrich's sails, Muth says.
"Gingrich [needed] to keep it close in order to have a shot in Nevada at all," he says.