By KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A victorious Mitt Romney sounded every bit the presumptive Republican nominee after triumphing over Newt Gingrich in Tuesday's Florida primary.
"I stand ready to lead this party and to lead our nation," Romney told the jubilant crowd gathered at the Tampa Convention Center, all but calling on the fractured GOP to rally behind his candidacy.
The former Massachusetts governor, who lost to Gingrich in South Carolina just 10 days ago, also tried to cast what's expected to be a long and bitter nomination fight as a positive for the Republican Party.
"A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us," Romney said after a relentlessly negative fight for all of Florida's delegates to the GOP nominating convention this summer.
He suggested that negative attacks by the remaining candidates in the race — Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — would be a test for his candidacy that would prepare him for the general election rather than a gift to Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney also offered what might be his most definitive argument yet for his presidential candidacy: Only he could lead the GOP and the country. His brief speech was filled with direct contrasts with Obama, specifically on the topic of leadership.
"My leadership helped build businesses from scratch. My leadership helped save the Olympics from scandal and give our American athletes the chance to make us all proud, and they did," Romney said. "My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity."
He had a message for Obama: "Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time for you to get out of the way!" And he jabbed at the president's 2008 campaign slogan, saying: "Together, we will build an America where 'hope' is a new job with a paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker."
Romney's victory in a large, diverse and expensive state showcased his campaign's overall financial and organizational strength and helped demonstrate that he can win in a state that plays an important role in the general election.
It was not an easy victory, despite the wide margin of victory.
After a win in New Hampshire, the South Carolina defeat left Romney's campaign panicked and it prompted his advisers to revamp his strategy.
He immediately went on the attack, assailing Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage giant that played a significant role in the housing crisis, in a state that has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.
Romney and his allies pummeled Gingrich on the airwaves, spending at least a combined $15 million on TV. And Florida marked the first time when Romney's official campaign — instead of the third-party group run by outsiders — went negative. Romney also delivered two strong debate performances here — and denied Gingrich the big moments he had in debates in South Carolina.
Overall, the fight for Florida demonstrated Romney's campaign was prepared to handle defeat and bounce back strong.
He's looking ahead to next-up contests in Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And his advisers say he has no plans to let up on Gingrich.
The win has also energized Romney's donors, hundreds of descended on Tampa, assuming Romney would win. They packed a room in the convention center, driving a buoyant mood that echoed the night of Romney's New Hampshire win.
Together they helped Romney raise $24 million during the last three months of 2011, dwarfing all of GOP competitors.
It leaves Romney with nearly $20 million cash-on-hand to take forward, while his rivals struggle with debt and have little left over.
Romney took the stage Tuesday with four of his five children and several grandchildren. He was introduced by his wife, Ann.
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