With a resounding victory in the Sunshine State, the front-runner hopes to finally rally Republicans around his candidacy.
There's no spinning it any other way: Mitt Romney's Florida victory was big. He defeated second-place Newt Gingrich by nearly 15 points, and with 46 percent of the vote, came close to an outright majority in the biggest, most diverse primary yet.
Speaking to a packed crowd in Tampa, Romney was forceful, even stirring: "Our opponents in the other party...like to comfort themselves with the thought that a long campaign will leave us divided and weak," he said. "I've got news for them. A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win. 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." As he spoke those words, Romney looked like living proof: the battle-tested candidate, scarred but stronger since his near-death experience in South Carolina.
The race moves on to Nevada, which holds caucuses on Saturday. Some thoughts on what we learned, and what we're still wondering, post-Florida:
* The comeback kid. Romney proved he could take a punch and bounce back. For those who saw him as a brittle candidate, unable to adapt to changing circumstances, this last week has been is a crucial rejoinder. Romney has looked tough, agile and focused as never before.
* The GOP is coming around.
In Florida, Romney won men and women, old and young, rich and poor, white and Hispanic, conservatives and moderates, Tea Party supporters and skeptics, urban, rural and suburban alike, according to the exit polls
. The broad base of support appears to be a signal that despite the calls of Sarah Palin and her ilk to draw out the primary as long as possible, Republicans may be about ready to get this thing over with and move on to the general election. Not everyone has jumped on the Romney bandwagon, however: white evangelical Christians, strong Tea Party adherents and those describing themselves as "very conservative" went for Gingrich in the poll. That could mean Romney will still struggle In upcoming primaries in deep South states with more conservative electorates.
* Will he get a bounce this time? Romney's last big victory, in New Hampshire, didn't give him a bump -- it got him a backlash, from South Carolina voters who revolted against the establishment's push for a quick finish and a neat closure. But Romney is in luck: The debates that have leveled the playing field for less well-funded candidates to date are no longer a factor for the next several primaries and caucuses. Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota will all vote before the next debate is scheduled to occur on Feb. 22.
* Nevada looks even better for Romney than Florida. Four years ago, Romney won Nevada by nearly 40 points against an even more crowded field. It's not true that his win was solely powered by an army of Mormons, either, though he had that too. Had no Mormons voted, Romney still would have come in first over second-place Ron Paul. Still, it's very difficult to see how Romney gets toppled in a state where he's very comfortable and well-liked.
* Gravity always wins. Romney's strong debate performances and aggressive posturing on the stump helped, but in the end, organization and money prevailed. Gingrich, with his on-again, off-again temperament and improvisational panache, couldn't compete, especially when he was outspent five to one on television.
* Gingrich is living in fantasyland. In his speech, the former speaker was anything but gracious. He did not acknowledge defeat or congratulate his opponents; his supporters held signs reading "46 States To Go." He launched into an ad-libbed recitation of actions he planned to execute upon taking office, and while much of it was a regular feature of his stump speeches, in this context it made him seem like he was out of touch with reality. For Romney, that's a problem. A Gingrich who refuses to face facts is a Gingrich who's not going anywhere.
* Rick Santorum seizes a new argument. He came in third with just 13 percent of the vote, and the former Pennsylvania had already moved on to Las Vegas Tuesday night, where he trotted out a new rationale for his candidacy. "In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity," he said. "He came out of the state of South Carolina with a big win and a lot of money. He said, 'I'm going to be the conservative, I'm going to be the anti-Mitt.' It didn't work. He became the issue." On Wednesday, Santorum announced, he plans to give a speech on "Romneycare and Obamacare." With Gingrich fading hard, there's a slim chance Santorum gets an opening, but Nevada, which is strongly libertarian and not very churchy, is not friendly territory for him.
* Ron Paul just wants a platform. Finishing fourth with just 7 percent of the vote, the Texas congressman, also speaking from Nevada, used his speech to talk some more about his crusade for liberty. It's increasingly obvious that Paul's interest in becoming president is minimal; all he wants is a stage to get his message out.
Image credit: Reuters/Mike Carlson