LAND-O-LAKES, FL – Mitt Romney won the Florida Presidential Preference Primary on Tuesday, earning the state's 50 delegates and distancing himself from 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.
"It’s disappointing," said Land O' Lakes resident Kevin Sakser, who backed Gingrich in the race.
Sakser believes the race was won on negative advertisements and money.
"This has just proven to be a money election," he said.
Despite the loss of his favored candidate, Sakser said he intends to support his party in the November election.
"(I'll) vote for Mitt Romney," he said. "(President) Obama is ruining this country for our grandkids. It’s just upsetting that the only person in this race that’s balanced the budget in the United States federal government (didn't win). People hold their nose to that but they’ll elect bill Clinton for a second term."
Sandy Graves, vice president of the Republican Club of Central Pasco, was pleased with Romney's win.
"Great night," she wrote in an email. "On to victory! Team Pasco worked very hard."
How Pasco Voted
According to the Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Office’s unofficial results, a total of 43,411 ballots were cast in today’s race. The total number of registered Republicans is 115,792.
Of those who voted in today’s race, 19,175 cast their ballots for Romney. Gingrich came in second with 13,057, or 30.09 percent of the vote. Rick Santorum trailed in at third with 6,731 ballots cast in his favor.
Voter turnout is estimated at 37.49 percent.
For a complete look at the unofficial results from Pasco, visit the supervisor’s office online.
The Importance of Florida
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 needs a total of 1,144 to win the Republican nomination.
Now the campaign trail shifts to Nevada and Maine for their caucuses on Feb. 4.