Despite last night's decisive Florida primary results, the GOP presidential nomination race is far from over, experts say.
That's because even though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is widely considered the front-runner, thanks to wins in New Hampshire and Florida as well as building support from many GOP leaders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all have vowed to keep competing. But many experts predict the months-long tussle will have negative effects on the GOP's chances of winning back the White House in the fall.
"It's a big distraction from kicking out President Obama and most Republicans don't want to stomach a several-month process. They'd like to wrap it up and move on to a general election race. But they may be forced to deal with it," says Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant in Washington.
Bonjean says he believes GOP voters are torn between the grand ideas and fire of Gingrich and the cool, calm, and collected management style of Romney.
"There's a split in the GOP between those who understand that Romney can take on President Obama and run an effective campaign and those who are truly listening to Newt Gingrich's great ideas but don't have a full grasp that he would make a very poor manager and a very undisciplined leader, let's put it that way," he says.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says there's no doubt the prolonged battle will damage the GOP brand.
"It's not good, no matter what they say," he says. "This doesn't keep the focus on the Republican message; it keeps the focus on negative ads, attacking everybody on the Republican side. It's not helpful. It increases divisions It makes it more difficult to get back together."
The recent exception to that rule was the long nomination fight in 2008 between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, he says.
"What's different is that this is much more vicious," Sabato says. "There were some negative ads in that race, like the 3 a.m. phone call, but they weren't vicious, they didn't take each other apart using their pasts and backgrounds and all the rest of it. They are having an impact and this is about as negative as any campaign gets."
The GOP primary race in Florida was particularly nasty, with Romney's team running news footage of the night Gingrich was reprimanded by the House of Representatives when he was speaker and mocking his claimed ties to Republican hero Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile Gingrich's campaign confirmed it was paying for robo-calls claiming that Romney denied kosher food to Holocaust survivors in Massachusetts to save taxpayer money, as first reported by the New York Post. The assertion is untrue, the Jewish Advocate determined in 2003.
Danny Hayes, political science professor at American University, says the reason this fight might be more damaging to Republicans than it was for Democrats in 2008 is that it's largely focused on actual policy differences.
"In 2008, you didn't really have candidates that were ideologically divergent or at least perceived that way by their own primary voters," he says. "Here, you have a similar dynamic but you do have this ideological issue-–so people who consider themselves very conservative are not too pleased with the idea of Mitt Romney as the nominee."
But he also concludes that come the general election, partisans will vote the line.
"The campaign between Obama and Romney, if he's the nominee, will remind them why they're Republicans or why they're Democrats even if there has been a bruising primary fight," Hayes says. "It doesn't mean that some of the Gingrich voters or some of the Santorum supporters might not take a little more persuading to get behind Mitt Romney if he's the nominee, but at the end of the day, Republicans are very unlikely to vote for Obama."