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Mitt Romney easily clinches Florida primary with more votes than Gingrich and Santorum combined

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Romney (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney coasted to a first-place victory in Florida's primary Tuesday, laying claim to all of the state's 50 delegates in the winner-take-all contest.

In his victory speech, Romney rejected the argument that a competitive race weakens the Republican party. "A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us," he said, speaking from a rally at the convention center in Tampa, Fla.

He took aim at President Obama throughout his speech, using language more akin to a general election race than a primary contest.

"You were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time to get out of the way," Romney said about Obama, referencing the Thomas Paine quote*: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

Newt Gingrich finished in second and former Rick Santorum in third. Ron Paul came in fourth place. (Both Paul and Santorum held election night events in Las Vegas, where voters will participate in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.)

Results stood at 47 percent for Romney, 32 percent for Gingrich, 13 percent for Santorum and 7 percent for Paul with 94 percent of precincts reporting. Romney may win more votes than Gingrich and Santorum combined.

More than half of Tuesday's votes were cast prior to primary day via early voting methods.

Gingrich claimed Tuesday's results solidified the 2012 primary as a "two-man race" between a "conservative leader" and a "Massachusetts moderate." He vowed to remain in the race for the duration.

"We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August," Gingrich said, speaking from his Florida headquarters in Orlando. Gingrich claimed he will show how "people power" can defeat "money" in this race.

Gingrich also announced that he will soon release a new version of the Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America," which Gingrich helped author.

In Las Vegas, despite his third place finish, Santorum vowed Tuesday night to remain in the race. He called on his competitors to focus on issues instead of "mud wrestling."

"In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity," Santorum said.

"He became the issue; we can't allow our nominee to become the issue in the campaign," he added, presenting himself as the "different conservative" voters will be searching for as an alternative to Romney in the weeks ahead.

Paul said he would remain in the race, saying in a speech at his Henderson, Nev. headquarters that when he called Romney to congratulate him, "I also said I would see him through in the caucus states!" Paul has focused recent campaigning on Nevada, Colorado and Maine, which are all scheduled to vote in the coming weeks.

Romney led Florida Tuesday among seniors and Hispanic voters, according to exit polls, while Gingrich topped Romney among evangelicals, tea partiers and voters who self-identified as "very conservative."

Romney's win makes him the first candidate to capture first place in two primary contests in 2012, following his win in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.

The Florida victory demonstrates his ability to compete in a diverse and expensive state. Many exit polls indicated Romney's presumed "electability" significantly influenced the decision-making of Florida's voters.

*Update 11:34 a.m. ET: Though Romney attributed this quote to Thomas Paine, the source of this quote has long been disputed. BuzzFeed reported Wednesday that there is no hard evidence Paine is the source.

Update 9:35 p.m. ET: Story updated to reflect new vote results, Gingrich and Paul's speeches.

Update 9:08 p.m. ET: Story updated to include Santorum's speech.

Update 8:45 p.m. ET: Story updated to reflect new vote results and Romney's victory speech.

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