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 Sarasota County, the results showed Romney with 51 percent, or 28,281 votes. Gingrich was second with 27 percent, or 15,142 votes. Rick Santorum was a distant third, with 13.75 percent, or 7,648 votes.
With all precincts reporting, turnout was at slightly more than 45 percent of registered Republicans, with 55,616 ballots cast.
Here are Sarasota County’s unofficial results by the numbers:
- Mitt Romney, 28,281
- Newt Gingrich, 15,142
- Rick Santorum, 7,648
- Ron Paul, 3,898
- Jon Hunstman, 261
- Rick Perry, 144
- Michele Bachmann, 133
- Herman Cain, 59
- Gary Johnson, 27
In an emailed statement, Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters offered his congratulations to Romney and called for local Republicans to unite in anticipation of the general election:
"It was a demanding and well-contested race with significant ramifications for the rest of the country. The demographics of our great state are diverse and representative. As most agree, winning here is a crucial step, not only determining Florida’s GOP nominee, but also in selecting the next President of the United States.
"I would also like to congratulate the voters of Sarasota County for leading the way and endorsing the ultimate victor in Florida. Tonight marks the sixth straight time Sarasota County voters have projected the winning candidate. ...
"In anticipation of the conclusion of the primaries at the GOP Convention in Tampa this August, it is now time to coalesce behind the Party and prepare for the battle to win back the White House and secure both legislatures."
Rita Ferrandino, chairwoman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, also reached out to county voters through an emailed statement:
“Mitt Romney & Newt Gingrich are both losers in today’s election. They lost Independent voters across the country after running to the far right and taking the wrong side of issues important to our communities. In particular, Hispanic voters are showing low support based on the extreme rhetoric on immigration during televised debates.
“This Florida election is all about the money. Romney and his Super PAC allies have outspent Gingrich in Florida by more than $12 million, shoveling more than $15 million into television ads to carpet-bomb voters our state. Rich Rick Scott poured $80 million into buying his job, and Rich Mitt Romney is looking to do the same.”
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.