Mitt Romney will win the Florida primary, CNN is projecting.
The projection is based on unofficial returns and exit polling that showed Romney with a double-digit lead over his closest challenger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
With 51 percent of the unofficial count, CNN said, Romney had 48 percent of the vote compared to 31 percent for Gingrich, 13 percent for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and 7 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Exit poll information showed that Romney led in most categories to show his appeal to Republican voters who said their main concern was choosing a candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama in November.
The victory gives Romney all 50 of Florida's convention delegates, CNN reported, as well as new momentum heading into a series of caucuses and primaries in the next month building up to Super Tuesday on March 6, when ten states will hold nominating contests.
In a final Florida poll of likely GOP primary voters which was released earlier on Tuesday by the American Research Group, Romney had a 12-point lead over Gingrich, with Santorum and Paul far behind.
A Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey released Monday had Romney favored by 43 percent compared to 29 percent for Gingrich.
Romney told reporters Tuesday that he had learned his lesson from his South Carolina loss.
“If you’re attacked, I’m not going to just sit back,” CNN quoted him as having told reporters in Tampa. “I’m going to fight back and fight back hard.”
While Romney’s and Gingrich’s campaigns have been focused on attacking one another in recent weeks, they did have a moment of unity around Israel last week.
During a CNN-sponsored Republican debate in Jacksonville, Florida, last Thursday, both Romney and Gingrich reiterated their support for Israel.
Romney charged that U.S. President Barack Obama “threw Israel under a bus” and noted that “the reason that there's not peace between the Palestinians and Israel is because there is in the leadership of the Palestinian people Hamas and others who think like Hamas who have as their intent the elimination of Israel.”
He added that the Israelis “would be happy to have a two state solution. It's the Palestinians who don't want a two state solution, they want to eliminate the state of Israel.”
Gingrich addressed the constant rocket attacks coming from Gaza and asked the audience, “Now, imagine in Duvall County (in Florida) that 11 rockets hit from your neighbor. How many of you would be for a peace process and how many of you would say, you know, that looks like an act of war?”
The former House speaker also repeated his pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv should he be elected president. Its current location is meant to symbolize American neutrality in the peace talks.
The next stop for the Republican candidates is Nevada, where caucuses take place Saturday. Minnesota and Colorado will hold their caucuses on February 7, the same day that Missouri holds its non-binding primary.