Mitt Romney rode one of the most negative primary campaigns in modern presidential politics to a landslide victory in delegate-rich Florida, but the Republican contest is likely to rumble on for weeks.
The prolonged fight is a marked shift from the GOP's last nomination battle, when John McCain effectively won the race in early February. New party rules and campaign financing schemes are making it harder for Romney to prevail as swiftly as front-runners of the past.
Romney buried Newt Gingrich under a merciless fusillade of attack ads. By various estimates, Romney and his allies outspent the Gingrich forces by a lopsided margin — about 5 to 1 — and virtually every Romney ad in the last week of the campaign was harshly negative.
Female voters fueled Romney's victory, favoring him by 23 percentage points over the thrice-married Gingrich, whose second wife went public less than two weeks ago with new details of his six-year affair with a former congressional staffer who is now his third wife.
Gingrich, siding with grass-roots conservatives in a deepening feud with the GOP establishment, said he would keep his campaign going all the way to the convention in August. He demonstrated his intent at his election-night headquarters in Florida, speaking from a lectern that bore a blue-and-white sign reading "46 States to Go."
Whether Gingrich can deliver on his boast to keep going for months should be evident no later than mid-March. Romney will put renewed pressure on his rivals to give up by then if he is successful in the 17 delegate contests that take place in the first two weeks of next month; if not, the race will probably continue well into the spring.
The new dynamics of the GOP battle stem, in part, from a deliberate effort by party leaders to forestall a rush to judgment in selecting the nominee.
Over the next 33 days, Michigan, which Romney won last time, and Arizona, where he ran second to favorite son McCain, are the only states with meaningful primaries, both on Feb. 28 (Missouri votes on Feb. 7, but no delegates are at stake). Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine, all won by Romney in 2008, will stage caucuses this month, but relatively few delegates will be selected.
Romney's rivals are competing in those tests, but they are already looking ahead toward Super Tuesday on March 6, the biggest primary day of the season, which is being held one month later than in 2008.
Gingrich is counting on victories that day in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and in Alabama and Mississippi the next week. Romney is favored in Massachusetts and Virginia (where Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot) and Ohio.
"Really, the question is: Can Romney win in the South and can Gingrich win anywhere outside the South?" said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College who tracks the delegate process on his FrontloadingHQ website.
A revolution in campaign financing is helping extend the race. Nomination fights of the past often ended when trailing candidates ran out of money. But the rise of "super PACs" — legally independent entities that can receive unlimited personal and corporate donations — is drastically altering presidential politics.
Gingrich and Rick Santorum have struggled to raise campaign funds, but each has been rescued by wealthy benefactors. Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner from Las Vegas, and his wife, Miriam, have put $10 million into a pro-Gingrich super PAC that is airing attack ads against Romney. A conservative investor from Wyoming, Foster Freiss, said he would finance TV ads for Santorum in Nevada, Colorado and Michigan.
Political considerations are also in play. Four years ago, Romney ended his candidacy, nine days after losing Florida, to avoid damaging his future presidential prospects. But Gingrich, at 68, has no such incentive to exit soon.
The future is now for the hot-tempered former House speaker, who seems quite happy to nurse resentments against former allies in the Republican power structure for some time to come. He has already come back from near-death twice in this campaign, though the oxygen that sustained him — nationally televised debates — is being shut off. The last took place Thursday and the next is not until Feb. 22, making for the longest gap between debates since Labor Day.
Ron Paul, the only candidate other than Romney with a national organization, is eyeing caucuses as an important route to the national convention. The Texas congressman, eager to gain leverage for his ideas when the party gathers in Tampa, Fla., could keep going into June, when the last delegates are chosen. Convention rules allow any candidate who controls five state delegations to have his name placed in nomination, a provision that gives also-rans an incentive to stay in as a way of maximizing their influence.
Santorum is pressing on too, despite a poor showing in Florida.
Republicans "are still looking for a conservative alternative to Romney," said Stuart Roy, an advisor to a pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund, who called the period after Super Tuesday "a very realistic date" for the former Pennsylvania senator to reassess.
"Capturing the narrative" will be key to wresting the nomination from Romney, said Roy, who foresees that happening over the next few months. "Ultimately we don't think it's going to come down to counting delegates at the convention to determine who the nominee is."
But increasingly, the delegate count is the scoreboard of the GOP contest, and Romney is likely to emphasize those numbers if he continues to do well.
In a recent memo, Gingrich's national political director, Martin Baker, countered that "this race is just getting started" and "will continue for months." He pointed out that, even with a Florida victory, Romney has fewer than 10% of the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Polling shows that with both Gingrich and Santorum on the ballot, Romney's share of the overall vote is reduced. That could make it more difficult for him to quickly amass large numbers of delegates, even if he's winning multiple contests. Under new proportionality rules in some states, losing candidates gain delegates too, reducing the victor's share. In others, winner-take-all rules have been toughened to force a candidate to get at least 50% of the vote, a difficult bar in a multi-candidate race.
Delegate math makes it practically impossible for Romney — or anyone else — to secure the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination until mid-April at the earliest.
But "the writing may be on the wall a little sooner than that," said political scientist Putnam, if Romney wins big again in February and in the vast majority of March contests.