Salena Zito

TAMPA -- Mitt Romney easily won Florida's Republican presidential primary in a record-breaking performance on Tuesday.

The victory gives the former Massachusetts governor 50 GOP delegates and renewed momentum as he heads to caucuses in Nevada and Maine, and then in Colorado and Minnesota.

With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 46 percent of the vote.

"I stand ready to lead this party and lead this nation," said Romney, standing with his wife, Ann, four of his five sons and two daughters-in-laws on a stage in the ballroom of the Tampa Convention Center in downtown.

The race was called the moment the polls closed at 8 p.m. The crowd that filled the ballroom erupted with cheers, waving miniature American flags and shouting, "Go, Mitt, go."

In his speech, Romney dismissed the possibility of party division after the brutal Florida primary, saying, "A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win."

He then turned his focus toward November and Obama. "You were elected to lead," he said. "Instead, you chose to follow, and now it is time for you to get out of the way."

His campaign said Romney's vote total -- more than 750,000 -- is the highest for any GOP candidate in a Florida presidential primary. The previous high was John McCain's 701,000 votes in 2008.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished second with 32 percent of the vote, just 10 days after his surprising upset win in South Carolina. As expected, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania placed third and Texas congressman Ron Paul, who did not campaign in Florida beyond two debates, finished last. The two had conceded the state to the lead rivals.

Gingrich, the first GOP candidate to win the South Carolina primary and lose in Florida in the same year, told his supporters at the Rosen Hotel in Orlando it was clear that it is a two-person race.

He told the crowd there are still "46 states to go," in keeping with his vow to take the contest to the convention.

Gingrich, who used an anti-establishment theme in the closing days of the primary, said: "We're going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months."

Romney's win puts him squarely on the road to the party's nomination, said Kyle Kondik, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

"He took Newt Gingrich's best shot in Florida and dispatched him," Kondik said.

But Kondik predicts the Republican presidential race could continue "perhaps for a long while, since Ron Paul, at least, seems intent to stay in this thing as long as he can, and Gingrich said over the weekend that he would take the race to the convention in Tampa this summer."

As the race moves forward, the GOP primary calendar favors Romney's strong state-by-state organization, experts say. With no debates scheduled for a few weeks, it will be difficult for the other candidates to penetrate his lead.

Because Florida's delegate allotment is winner-take-all, only Romney padded his number -- to 87, assuming that national party leaders don't cut the state's delegates in half again, for altering the Republican National Committee's primary schedule. Gingrich has 26 delegates; Santorum, 14; and Paul, four.

Still, Romney has only a fraction of the 1,144 delegates he needs to become the nominee.

The winner in Nevada on Saturday will get the largest share of that state's 28 delegates. But the next three contests on Feb. 7 -- caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, and the Missouri primary -- will be non-binding votes. The candidates won't find out how many delegates they've won until Missouri's caucus on March 17 and party conventions in Colorado and Minnesota, which take place from March through May.

On Super Tuesday (March 6), 10 states representing 437 delegates will vote in primaries and caucuses from Alaska to Virginia. Of those delegates, 385 will be apportioned based on vote totals, and 52 -- many of them state party chairs and national committee members -- can support whomever they wish.

Experts say it's likely a clear winner will emerge before then. Kondik, for one, wonders whether Gingrich or Santorum has the money and organization to eclipse Romney now.

Early last week, when Gingrich headed to Florida with momentum from a surprising win in South Carolina, a skittish Republican establishment in Washington began fearing a prolonged primary process with no consensus candidate. People whispered that a dramatic convention would result, producing an alternative candidate.

That's extremely unlikely, Kondik said.

"Republicans, both in Washington and across the nation, are breathing a sigh of relief," he said. "They believe Romney gives them the best chance to beat Barack Obama in the fall, and the least chance of inflicting damage down the ticket.

"That said, how good of a candidate would Romney be against Obama? The jury's out, and if the economy continues to improve, even slightly, Obama's chances for a second term also get better. Indeed, he seems to be in much better shape now than he was just a few months ago."

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.