TAMPA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney grabbed a Florida GOP primary victory Tuesday with a strong ground game, vastly improved debate performances, a stepped-up attack on Newt Gingrich's Freddie Mac ties and a psychological operation designed to get under the former speaker's skin.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, thumped Gingrich 46 percent to 32 percent, with former Sen. Rick Santorum at 13 percent and Rep. Ron Paul at 7 percent.
Buoyant at his victory rally in the convention center here, flanked by his wife, Ann, and four of his five sons, Romney alluded to the bitterness of the closing days of the Florida campaign in his victory speech and said the fight will only make Republicans stronger in November to take on President Barack Obama.
"As this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching. And they like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak," Romney said.
"But I've got some news for them: A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us. And we will win.
"And when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America."
Gingrich in Orlando primary night -- standing behind a podium with a sign that said "46 states to go" -- said he'll be nominated in Tampa, though the path for him to get 1,144 delegates grew narrower with Romney's win, earning him 50 Florida delegates.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich said.
Romney's landslide will make it harder for Gingrich to raise money. There is no debate until Feb. 22 in Arizona for Gingrich to try to repeat his debate knockouts that helped him clinch the South Carolina primary.
As in Florida, Nevada is suffering from a housing market collapse, and Gingrich has yet to come up with a better answer than "historian" for what he and his firm did to earn $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage firm.
Exit polls showed that Romney's strong Florida debates -- contrasted with Gingrich's lackluster showing -- mattered; 86 percent said the debates were a factor in their decision.
A gender gap -- make that chasm -- opened in Florida, perhaps a delayed reaction to a former Gingrich wife saying in an interview just before the South Carolina vote he asked for an "open marriage'' while he was having an affair. Romney won 51 percent of females, compared to 29 percent for Gingrich.
By Florida the Romney team activated a "Psyops" or psychological operation against Gingrich aided by a number of present and former congressmen who served under Gingrich when he was Speaker and who knew how to push his buttons.
A Romney spot launched on Friday was potent, featuring simply a clip of then-NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's newscast about Gingrich's ethics scandal while Speaker.
The Romney Florida operation learned from the 2008 primary here, where Sen. John McCain beat Romney by five points. The seeds for the 2012 Romney Sunshine State win were planted in June, when the campaign opened a Florida headquarters in Tampa to start work on a ground game that overwhelmingly delivered on Tuesday.
With the large number of Florida voters casting early and absentee ballots this year-- some 600,000 -- a Romney staffer told me that projections showed that Gingrich woke up Tuesday already in the hole.
The Romney team made a huge effort -- not matched by any of their rivals -- to identify their voters and lock in their early vote -- immunizing themselves, to some degree, from the last-minute attacks that marked the nasty closing days of the campaign. They started contacting 470,000 Florida Republicans who regularly vote early in mid-December -- when Romney's rivals only had the resources to concentrate in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina